Conservation photographer Michele Westmorland tracked down not only the route Mytinger took, but also descendants from the people she painted.
Conservation photographer Michele Westmorland tracked down not only the route Mytinger took, but also descendants from the people she painted. (Photo: Michele Westmorland/Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology Collection)

In 1926, two women boarded a ship bound for the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. They were artists, and poured every last penny into passage out of San Francisco to a place neither of them had seen before, and which at the time was infamous for a culture of headhunting.

For four years, Caroline Mytinger and her friend Margaret Warner traveled from island to island, painting portraits of the indigenous peoples they met along the way. Though the two women met many challenges during their expedition, the local people were rarely the source of trouble.

These were not the cannibalistic and “savage” headhunters Westerners believed them to be. They were people of an interesting and vibrant culture, and Mytinger was determined to paint them for who they were, without interpretation or projection.

Mytinger brought back 25 paintings that show the culture of Melanesia at that time period. Recording the local dress and way of life in colorful detail, Mytinger recorded the people of Melanesia in a way that no other art or photography had depicted.

Mytinger sits with the subjects of her poignant painting.
Mytinger sits with the subjects of her poignant painting.

Unique both in the subject matter and in the audacity of two women traveling the world alone in the late 1920s, one would think Mytinger’s work would be in demand when she returned. But she returned just in time for the Great Depression, and things did not work out in her favor.

Though Mytinger had a brief exhibition of her work in the United States in the 1930s, her art never made it far into the public eye. It was packed away and essentially forgotten for decades. Mytinger never pursued further exhibitions and died in obscurity in her 80s.

It wasn’t until 80 years after Mytinger’s journey that another artist stumbled upon her story and was inspired to retrace her footsteps.

Conservation photographer Michele Westmorland began her own epic journey to follow the route Mytinger took through Melanesia, a journey that has become a 15-year odyssey to shine a spotlight on an inspiring, adventurous and talented woman unjustly forgotten but also to create an anchor point through Mytinger’s work to tell the story of Melanesia and the many risks it faces today.

"Headhunt Revisited: With Brush, Canvas and Camera" is a 75-minute documentary and labor of love that began in 2001. After being given one of Mytinger’s two autobiographical books, Westmorland became hooked on the story of this surprising and courageous woman. She began her research, and then her own expedition to unearth the story of the intrepid Mytinger as well as the many threads that weave into the story from culture to conservation.

This headdress no longer exists.  Destroyed by missionaries for its sexual conotation. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
This headdress no longer exists. Destroyed by missionaries for its sexual connotation. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. (Photo: Michele Westmorland /Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology Collection)

The project has been an act of sheer determination by Westmorland, starting with a dogged search for information on Mytinger beyond her two autobiographical books.

“I tried to do some early research and found very little,” says Westmorland. “It took me several years to even find her paintings. Then one night I did another Google search and up came a brand new website from the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, Collection. It said ‘Caroline Mytinger, 23 oils.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me!?’”

Westmorland knew she finally had a chance to tell the story. If the paintings weren't any good, or were in poor condition, then there wouldn't be a foundation to her project.

Westmorland traveled to the museum where the paintings were living in a 1 million-square-foot warehouse, stashed among 3 million pieces of art stored in crates.

“They pulled the first [painting] out of the crate and everyone just stood there in awe — in total awe. It just took me on years of search. I finally found out who she was, why she went there."

As the staff pulled Mytinger’s works from storage, Westmorland began pulling the woman herself out of obscurity.

Siaka Heni, maker of "Heera" headdress in traditional dress at Embassy reception.  Siaka spent 2 months preparing this headdress in the traditional ways, including fasting and abstaining from sex.  On expedition in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Siaka Heni, maker of a 'Heera' headdress for traditional dress. Siaka spent two months preparing this headdress following traditional methods, including fasting and abstaining from sex. Taken on expedition in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (Photo: Michele Westmorland/Headhunt Revisited with Brush, Canvas and Camera)

About 90 years after Mytinger set out for Melanesia, viewers will be able to travel alongside the artist, view the works she completed, meet the descendants of her subjects, and learn about this culturally rich part of the world through the film.

“She needs her story told," says Westmorland. "There’s too many talented women of that period that have been forgotten. For her and Margaret to do this journey and to come home with beautiful paintings that historically have value especially to the people of Melanesia, it’s extremely significant.”

But the story doesn’t start or end with Mytinger.

The film project brings to light the forgotten story of an adventurous and exceptional woman, but it also delves into the people whose portraits she painted and their descendants, the changing culture of Melanesia, the ability of art to record culture. But perhaps most importantly, Westmorland’s documentary is an act of environmental and cultural conservation.

Caroline Mytinger and Margaret Warner in New Zealand on the quest for a Maori model.
Caroline Mytinger and Margaret Warner in New Zealand on their quest to find a Maori model. (Photo: Michele Westmorland/Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology Collection)

"Headhunt Revisited: With Brush, Canvas and Camera" notes in its mission statement:

"Caroline's portraits challenge stereotypes about Melanesian people, convey traditions across generations and inspire future artists to document their culture. Headhunt Revisited aspires to continue this noble endeavor, defying 'savage' misconceptions and generating a revitalization of cultural self-expression through photography, painting and film...Outside of the South Pacific region, most people don't know where Melanesia is. Headhunt Revisited will educate and inform the world about this incredible region, its people, cultural traditions, and environmental treasures. The symbiosis of local traditions with such a rich, but threatened ecosystem cannot be overstated."

Much has changed in Melanesia since Mytinger visited. The area is facing a barrage of conservation problems from sea level rise to ecologically devastating seabed mining, from logging to preserving marine biodiversity. This documentary connects viewers to the location, to the people — and it's only with that connection that conservation can happen.

In exploring the people of Melanesia and the ability of art to record culture, the film also incorporates the work of Jeffry Feeger, a painter whose subjects are the people of Melanesia as they are today, and in the process, highlighting current environmental and social issues.

Through Mytinger’s expedition, through Westmorland’s retracing of the journey 90 years later, through the portraiture of Mytinger, Westmorland and Feeger, the world gets to know a place that's not often talked about outside of vacation plans.

Celebration of 25th Anniversary of Fr. Michael Igo's priesthood.  Elevala Village, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Celebration of 25th Anniversary of Fr. Michael Igo's priesthood. Elevala Village, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (Photo: Michele Westmorland)

The complexity and commingling of the many-layered topics is why it has taken a decade to see it completed. What started out as a project with hardly any information to go on turned into a project with such an abundance of material that it became a question of how to narrow it down and focus the subject matter so audiences weren't overwhelmed.

The editing process, as well as fundraising, has taken far longer than Westmorland anticipated at the start.

“After feeling depressed so many times thinking ‘when can I get this done?!’, I found from other filmmakers that the depth and subject matter of this particular project, no one is surprised that it’s taking this long to bring it to where it is. We’re hoping to get it done this fall.”

The determination and tenacity of Westmorland to complete her own journey mimics that of her project's inspiration. Both women are determined to record something important for future generations through their art, and neither would be deterred despite bumps in progress.

The documentary project has received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and will be part of film festivals as soon as it is completed. You can sign up for the project's newsletter to stay updated, or follow the Facebook page.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.