Kristin Rutkowski’s journey from portrait photographer to book publisher and museum exhibitor began with a discovery. When she and her husband sailed the Chesapeake, she encountered women who were not passengers on their husbands’ or partners’ boats, but captains of their own vessels. Her Helm, a Portrait Project Celebrating Women Making Their Own Way on the Water, was conceived to challenge prevailing stereotypes of women working on the Bay.
Rutkowski’s inaugural photography subject was Janet Rupp, a fishing boat captain based out of Herrington Harbor South. “I informed her of my project and expressed interest in including her,” Rutkowski recalled.
News of Her Helm quickly spread through word of mouth. When Rutkowski provided a link for captains to apply, the response exceeded available project slots. The current collection showcases a diverse group of Bay area women, including a pilot; fishing charter captains; tall ship, tug boat, and safety boat captains; instructors; and boat owners.
Initially, Rutkowski envisioned featuring the Her Helm images as an ancillary project on her website.
“However, as I captured more photos and shared them, I realized that each captain should be part of a collective to demonstrate the impact of her endeavors.”
Despite lacking a background in publishing, Rutkowski embarked on creating a book of photos accompanied by personal narratives. “I gathered the nuts and bolts from Google,” she confessed, “and from conversations with individuals who had undertaken similar ventures. It was an exhilarating and nerve-wracking process,” she reflected, “but it paid off.”
Her Helm: Chesapeake Bay is a collectible fine art book in two parts. The first section showcases each captain’s image and biographical story through its pages. The second features stories, poems, essays, and artwork contributed by a select group of writers and artists from around the Bay.
Rutkowski attributes the evolution of Her Helm from a book to a museum exhibit to Jill Ferris, Vice President of Education and Training, and Jen Dolde, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Exhibitions at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. “They were invaluable because they recognized Her Helm’s potential to resonate with and inspire their audience. That’s how it transformed into an exhibit. I hadn’t initially conceived it as an artist’s display. It simply evolved, and I’m indebted to them for their support.”
Her Helm: Portraits of the Chesapeake, featuring a curated selection of portraits from the book, premieres at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s Van Lennep Auditorium on September 8, 2023, and will be on display until Summer 2024.
On Thursday, September 14, at 5:30 p.m., the museum will host an artist talk with Rutkowski. During the talk, she will delve into the significance of Her Helm, not only for the women depicted, but for women throughout the Bay region. Supporters of the project, as well as some featured captains, will also be in attendance.
Rutkowski emphasized, “Some of the women in the project were unaware of the sheer number of women captains on the Bay.” For her, the most pivotal aspect of the talk will be the face-to-face interaction. “It holds greater impact than any other form of communication. It lays the groundwork for new connections and partnerships that can only arise from meeting in person.”
To learn more about the Her Helm project visit: herhelm.com/. For information on the exhibit and author talk at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum visit: cbmm.org/her-helm-portraits-of-women-on-the-chesapeake/