Former crime artist based in Bath's themes now are honor, innocence, beauty
S ome images stay with us forever. Many, fortunately, are pleasant: what we were doing the day we met the person who would become our spouse; that perfect day at the beach last summer; any number of mental snapshots from Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.
Then there are the others - the images we can't shake no matter how hard we try.
While working as an artist in California years ago, Craig Pursley was expanding a career in providing sketches of suspects for local law-enforcement agencies. Word of his talent spread, and Pursley added newspaper assignments for the Orange County Register, drawing in courtrooms where cameras were not allowed.
But, he says, there were assignments from the FBI that he could have done without.
"They asked me a couple of times to go to the morgue," he recalled. "Once, I was there when they were doing an autopsy. That was an education I didn't really care to have. I didn't know that was going to happen. They pulled back the sheet, and there was a woman on a stainless steel table who had been stabbed 33 times."
It was clear from the body's position that the victim had been attempting to fend off her attacker or attackers, Pursley said. Federal authorities needed a sketch to help with identification since the woman's fingertips were missing when the body was found.
"Rigor mortis had set in, and she was in the position she had died in, so that was quite a shock," Pursley said. "I must have done 300 to 400 sketches between 1974 and 1982. That was the worst one."
Though the image stays with him, you won't find it in Pursley's American Heritage Gallery of Art in Bath Village.
The paintings that adorn the walls there, including many of beautiful women, are celebrations of life.
Pursley's models are not professionals. One used to scoop ice cream at the shop next door before she moved to Florida. Another was from across the river in Bradford, Vt. Innocence shines through in their portraits.
"If they realize how good-looking they are, that's the last time I use them," Pursley said.
Over the years, he said, he's had to rely on a variety of artwork to sustain his livelihood. At one time, he provided work that was made into baseball cards distributed by the leading manufacturers in the industry, Topps, Bowman and Upper Deck. He also designed and produced artwork to help promote Major League Baseball's annual All-Star Game.
A native of Nebraska, Pursley has lived in Bath with his wife, Julie, for 12 years. They love New Hampshire, but making a living as an artist remains a challenge. Business relies to a large extent on tour-bus patrons and other travelers who stop in historic Bath Village during summer and the fall foliage season.
But increased public recognition has helped.
Two of Pursley's works are on display in the New Hampshire State House - "The Public Servant," a tribute to the late Executive Councilor Ray Burton of Bath, and an elegant portrait of former New Hampshire Gov. and U.S. Sen. Henry Wilder Keyes, a North Haverhill farmer who was governor during World War I - and New Hampshire magazine recently named him "Best White Mountain Artist."
Not coincidentally, business lately has been good.
"April was very successful. I sold 20 paintings," Pursley said. "One person came and thought he might buy two paintings, and he bought six. This might be our best year ever."
It certainly beats sketching in the morgue.
Online: Pursley's work can be viewed at www.pursleyart.com.
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