July 05, 1982 12:00 PM

Though the cannon smoke cleared nearly 170 years ago, Jim Clary has such an intimate sense of the moment that it almost seems as if he was there. The time was 2:40 p.m., Dec. 29, 1812. The place: 30 miles off the Brazilian coast. For three-quarters of an hour the 44-gun U.S.S. Constitution and the 38-gun H.M.S. Java traded furious broadsides. The U.S. frigate’s steering wheel was damaged, her skipper wounded in the left hip by musket fire. Still, Commodore William Bainbridge, clinging to a crewman for support, ordered: “Close the enemy!”

History tells the outcome. As the Constitution shot away the Java’s jib boom, the tide of battle turned. By late afternoon American guns firing 32-pound balls had battered the British frigate so badly she later had to be sunk. Clary, 43, a marine artist from St. Clair, Mich., regards it as a profoundly inspirational moment. “The Constitution,” he declares, “is America’s lasting monument to freedom of the seas.” While the historic flagship, the oldest U.S. Navy vessel still in commission, has been captured on canvas many times, Clary was convinced he had a new and better idea—depicting a deck-fighting scene. The result, a 30-by-20-inch acrylic, will be unveiled during July 4 ceremonies at the Charles-town (Mass.) Navy Yard, home of the legendary “Old Ironsides.”

Clary, a stickler for accuracy, has a scholar’s disdain for artistic liberties. To research his work, he spent months poring over books, documents, scale models and blueprints. (The Constitution has undergone eight facelifts in her 185 years.) Studying the original battle reports, Clary consulted with an ordnance expert. “We had to figure out where each crewman would stand on deck,” he explains. “We knew which guns had been blown away, and could figure the casualties at each position. The wheel had been hit, and we had to determine how it would fall.”

Armed with a small arsenal of data, Clary went aboard the Constitution last August to choreograph his battle scene. Assisting him were 33 Navy volunteers, togged out in 19th-century combat gear. Then Clary went back home to his garage studio in St. Clair, where he worked from the 130 photographs he had made while on board. Some 1,600 easel-hours later Close the Enemy was completed.

A six-footer with the suitably weathered look of an old salt, Clary is laconic, except about ships and the sea. Among his more than 200 works, all on marine themes, his favorite remains his 1972 rendition of the sinking Titanic, painted bow-on rather than from the side, as is customary. In his usual meticulous way, he asked the University of Michigan astronomy department to plot the stars of the night sky over the Titanic’s reported position on April 15, 1912, then faithfully reproduced the stars in his painting. He also searched for firsthand accounts of the sinking. “I talked to one of the survivors who was 97 years old,” Clary says. “She was 27 when it happened and saw the ship sink out of sight. While she was talking, my heart went to my stomach. God, it was exciting!”

Though his approach is that of a historian with a brush, Clary is entirely self-taught. As a child, he explains, he was a “river rat,” growing up beside the St. Clair River, watching the Great Lakes traffic glide by. His passion for ships carried over into parochial school, where his lapses of attention in class earned him repeated raps on the knuckles. But he had a talent for drawing, and after serving two hitches in the Air Force as a flight mechanic, he decided in 1968 to make it his livelihood. It was a dicey decision, since by then he had a growing family at home. His wife, Ann, the mother of his five children, ages 13 to 20, remains his most reliable critic because, he says, “she’s honest.”

Today Clary runs his own shop in St. Clair—it is called Cap’n Jim’s Gallery—and sells prints at prices ranging from $70 to $1,050. In 1979 he sold an original acrylic of a Great Lakes excursion boat for $22,000. His first book, Ladies of the Lakes (Michigan Natural Resources Magazine, $24.95), which included a portfolio of his ship paintings, was published last November. Close the Enemy is the second of five paintings commissioned from him by the U.S.S. Constitution Museum Foundation in Boston. Clary believes that his best works are yet to come. He remembers a week he spent in 1976 aboard a tall ship, the U.S. Coast Guard training barque Eagle: “I had the run of the ship, and I was in a different world. It was really emotional for me, and I can’t paint it right now, but someday I will. And that, I hope, will be my masterpiece.”

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