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A Gibson Girl in New Guinea

Two Seattle women have retraced the intrepid travels of model and portrait artist Caroline Mytinger, who journeyed to the South Sea islands in the 1920s to capture "vanishing primitives" on canvas

But these were minor annoyances to the pair, who by all accounts gloried in exploring the strangeness and beauty of the exotic isles and their peoples. In her paintings and drawings, Mytinger depicted men, women and children of the coastal fishing tribes as well as members of the bush tribes living deep in the jungle. She recorded native dress and customs, the indigenous architecture of vine-and-bamboo huts and the men’s elaborate hairdos—bleached with lime (to kill lice) and decorated with feathers, flowers and live butterflies.

In the Solomon Islands in the village of Patutiva, the two Americans were the only women invited on a hunt for giant turtles. “There seemed to be acres of great brown shells floating on the water,” Mytinger recalled. “The whole surface was covered far out ahead with waving islands of them.” The hunters slipped into the water, turned the slumbering turtles onto their backs (rendering them helpless) and pulled them onto shore with their boats. Days of riotous feasting followed, in a scene that Mytinger wrote was “the picture of Melanesia: the smoky shafts of sunlight...; the billions of flies; the racing dogs and yipping children; the laughter and whacking and the wonderful color of great bowls of golden [turtle] eggs on the green banana-leaf carpet.”

After surviving an earthquake in Rabaul and producing a stack of canvases depicting the Coral Sea peoples, Mytinger and Warner moved on—by wangling rides on a series of small boats—to what is now Papua New Guinea. They spent many months hopping from settlement to settlement along the coastline, sometimes through terrifying storms. Mytinger described one night voyage in a leaky launch whose engine stalled during a ferocious downpour; only frantic paddling with wooden slats ripped from the boat’s engine cover saved them from being swept into the surf. “I do not know why it seems so much worse to drown on a dark night than in the daylight,” Mytinger later wrote.

Despite such brushes with disaster, the two eagerly seized the opportunity to travel into New Guinea’s still largely unexplored interior on the launch of an American sugar-cane expedition going up the island’s Fly River. Mytinger and Warner went ashore several times, often against the advice of their companions. On one occasion, they were charged by a gigantic lizard. On another, in the remote village of Weriadai, they were confronted by indignant tribesmen when they managed to sneak away from the colonial government representative and the Papuan troops who were escorting them and finagle their way into a women’s “longhouse”—a gathering place strictly taboo to outsiders. When the government representative arrived with the Papuan Army “and a vociferously protesting crowd of tribesmen,” Mytinger recounted, “we gals were all sitting chummily on the floor inside the longhouse, the clay-plastered Weriadai matrons acquiring charm by smoking Old Golds and Margaret and I yodeling the Hawaiian ‘Piercing Wind.’” Mytinger got the sketches and photographs she wanted, the Weriadai women got to one-up their men with the Americans’ cigarettes, and the government representative eventually thanked the two women for helping to promote “friendly relations."

Mytinger’s adventurous streak ran in the family. Her father, Lewis Mytinger, a tinkerer whose inventions included a can opener and a machine for washing gold ore, had already shed one family when he married Orlese McDowell in 1895 and settled in Sacramento, California. But within two years—just four days after Caroline was born on March 6, 1897—Lewis was writing to a sister to ask for help finding an old girlfriend. “You know,” he wrote, “I might take a notion to marry again some day and it is good to have a great many to select from.” Caroline was named after another sister, but that seems to have been the extent of his family feeling. Not long after her birth he took off for the gold fields of Alaska, where, according to family records, he accidentally drowned in the Klutina River in 1898.

Young Caroline and her mother moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Caroline grew up and attended the Cleveland School of Art from 1916 to 1919. Through an art school classmate she rediscovered her namesake, her aunt Caroline, who lived in Washington, D.C. In a letter to her newfound relative, the 21-year-old described herself as “tall and thin,” adding, “I appear to have large feet and orange tresses, which hang around most of the time and make me look like a beastly flamboyant poodle.”

Mytinger was in fact a strikingly lovely strawberry blonde who was known as “Cleveland’s most beautiful woman.” She paid for her art lessons, first in Cleveland and later in New York City, by posing for several distinguished artists, among them illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as a model for some of his famous Gibson girls. Within a few years of completing school, Mytinger was earning her living painting portraits of local socialites and doing illustrations for Secrets magazine, turning out dewy-eyed beauties to accompany such articles as “When My Dreams Come True.”

In December 1920, she married a young Cleveland doctor, George Stober. According to the standard script, it was time for Mytinger to settle into cozy domesticity. She had other ambitions, however, and they reflected the crosscurrents of social change that characterized her era.

Mytinger was part of a generation of American women who in unprecedented numbers sheared off their hair, shortened their skirts and went to work outside the home. Some went farther: during the Roaring Twenties, books and magazines detailed the exploits of “lady explorers.” At the same time, World War I and a huge influx of immigrants had dramatically increased American awareness of cultural differences. Along with people who regarded those differences as threatening, there were idealists eager to investigate other cultures as a way of questioning their own. During the 1920s, anthropologist Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa became a top-seller and Chicago’s Field Museum sent artist Malvina Hoffman around the world to create some 100 life-size sculptures illustrating the world’s “racial types.”

Mytinger read every anthropology text she could find and hoped her talent for portraiture could contribute to social science. She started out, according to one newspaper account, by trying to record “the various Negro types” in Cleveland, then went to Haiti and to Indian reservations in Florida and California. But since none of the peoples she encountered represented the “pure types” she said she wanted to paint, she hit upon the idea of going to the relatively unexplored Solomon Islands and New Guinea.

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