Beauty in a loss

Cathleen Engelsen , who paints scenes of Long Beach Island and local landmarks, with her scenes of the famous causeway shack: pre-Sandy and post-Sandy (right). CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Cathleen Engelsen , who paints scenes of Long Beach Island and local landmarks, with her scenes of the famous causeway shack: pre-Sandy and post-Sandy (right). CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 22, 2014

SURF CITY, N.J. - Oddly, it was the new McDonald's in Manahawkin in the 1970s that gave Cathleen Engelsen the break she needed in painting: Two historical murals commissioned for the new big thing headed into Long Beach Island.

Engelsen has made her art career capturing the Jersey Shore's past. Then, something she'd long painted disappeared: the famous dilapidated shack along the causeway headed to Long Beach Island. When it vanished overnight during Sandy, she found herself fascinated not by what was lost, but by what was revealed.

Her painting of the post-shack shack is featured on the now-poignantly moot Save the Shack website. And she will be one of dozens of artists featured on LBI's open Studio Tour June 28-29.

Question: How sad were you when you heard about the shack? It disappeared kind of like a relative who dies in their sleep, when no one was looking.

Answer: I think we all expected it to go. It was in really bad shape. When I painted it the first time, it was pretty lively; there was the old National truck, the old water barrels, and catwalks. That was a very important theme in our area, these little catwalks: two planks side by side that would go out over the marsh.  

Q: The police chief himself announced that it was gone, the morning after Sandy, as if it was a matter of great significance that the shack was gone.

A: People tried to shore it up and do different things. I was never with that group of people. I didn't have time. I didn't have dedication to save something that you know it's inevitable that it was going to go in a big storm.

I can't say I have any emotion. I thought it was a good, nice painting. It's such a landmark.  

Q: Do you think it meant more to visitors than locals?

A: This was the gateway to when they come on vacation, but I think we all enjoyed it as well as they did. A lot of people went to parties there. It had a sordid past.

As Jay Mann [publisher of the Sandpaper] said, an old landmark just won't die.

Q: Instead of focusing on painting the shack itself to preserve the memory, here you painted the void.

A: I really loved the beauty of those old pilings. I remember them from my youth. It's just such a natural beauty. I painted three after-hurricane pictures. I did this one. I did a house where the bay had blown through it over on the mainland. And I did the Seaside Heights roller-coaster in the water. I put the - I think they're called screaming seagulls - in each one. Because they're kind of crying. And they're endless. They go on, and they're such a tradition of the seashore, the sound of that.

Q: There doesn't seem to be any trace of it. What happened to it?

A: Strange things stayed after Sandy. These old pilings were still there. It amazed me, that's what it looked like underneath the shack.

It was all over. People picked up pieces of it, creative people. Ben Wurst made the state of New Jersey out of pieces of the shack. I put the shack and post-shack side by side. The shack sells more.

Q: Why are you drawn to the historical paintings?

A: In the '70s, I was hired to paint two panorama murals of the history of Long Beach Island for a McDonald's opening up in Manahawkin. It was a new thing. People were lined up to go in there and get a hamburger.

I used my grandfather's old photographs. He was quite a photographer in Tuckerton from 1915 to 1930. He took what was existing then: Tucker's Island, Tucker's lighthouse, all washed away in the hurricane [of 1944]. You read about this stuff, but you really don't think it would happen to you. If you did, you'd be scared all the time.

Q: LBI has long had a tradition of artists on the island. Why?

A: I think it started in the '40s when so many Philadelphia artists had second homes here. They were masters. They had nice studios and made money from their art. These were their second homes. Now it's very expensive to live here on the island. Many of the artists still want to, some of them are surfers. They live on the mainland. Or they can scrimp and save and get a little apartment here on the island. Some people like myself have a family home.

This interview has been edited for space.

For more information on the LBI Open Studio Tour go to



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