The concept of being wet takes in a bit of territory. On the coast, you can be “wet from birth,” meaning you grew up on the water. Sometimes I’ve heard people described as just being all wet. The meaning here is that you weren’t smart enough to come in from the damp weather. Sometimes I’ve felt that I’ve been both all at once. I was born a part of a seafaring family and spent my youth growing up helping my Marine Engineer father. But as a sailor in a boat with actual sails, I can’t compete with those “smart as fresh paint” wise guys who’ve owned their sailboats since before puberty. One is not quite the equivalent of the other.
Then, I developed my penchant for carving boats these days rather than sailing them. I had hit the point where scrambling fitfully over centerboard trunks and going forward on heaving foredecks to tend fitful jibs no longer appealed. Knees and hips had aged.
So now I carve and once in a while pontificate on the activities of my peers. I actually may be improving with age, without ever leaving the dock.
<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">It's not my most technically astute piece. It's just common pine, and it was done early on in my box making phase. The little box with the sloop on it kicked around for a while. I took it with me to a Salem Maritime Festival one year to fill out a table, and it and a similar box sold to a North Shore ( in Massachusett's that means along the coast north of Boston ) art teacher who said she liked them because they had a story.<br>It took me a while to think about it because it had been a long time since I had carved the scenes for the box lids, but there was a storyline involved. The little sloop is close to a disastrous jibe, and in the tempest, it is sailing in it will probably lead to a knockdown – the sort of scenario that haunts every sailor's dreams. But careful seamanship might still save the boat from disaster.<br>So all contained in one carving is a small dynamic story. You are entering the story in the middle. But from the waves and sky, you can conjecture the beginning. You can see that depending on the abilities of captain and crew, the outcome will be a disaster or a victory. To some extent, that outcome is yours to imagine.It’s not my most technically astute piece. It’s just common pine, and it was done early on in my box making phase. The little box with the sloop on it kicked around for a while. I took it with me to a Salem Maritime Festival one year to fill out a table, and it and a similar box sold to a North Shore ( in Massachusett’s that means along the coast north of Boston ) art teacher who said she liked them because they had a story. It took me a while to think about it because it had been a long time since I had carved the scenes for the box lids, but there was a storyline involved. The little sloop is close to a disastrous jibe, and in the tempest, it is sailing in it will probably lead to a knockdown – the sort of scenario that haunts every sailor’s dreams. But careful seamanship might still save the boat from disaster. So all contained in one carving is a small dynamic story. You are entering the story in the middle. But from the waves and sky, you can conjecture the beginning. You can see that depending on the abilities of captain and crew, the outcome will be a disaster or a victory. To some extent, that outcome is yours to imagine.
A comment made to me about this carving a few weeks ago got me thinking about how and why I carved it. My style changed based on what clients wanted in their boat and ship portraits – more pacific treatments of boats effortlessly sailing on calmer seas. But I think I’ll print a copy of this picture to hang in the shop to remind myself that other approaches and techniques work and that they tell stories.
This chest was not in stock long enough for me to do a proper set of photos. It sold at it’s first appearance at the Maine Boatbuilder’s Show to a pair of Boston Harbor pilots who were going to give it as a retirement gift to a colleague. The chest itself was of fairly common pine with teak keys for strength and decorative effect. The top though, that’s some pine of a different pedigree. The pine tree was felled by the great hurricane of 1938. At the time it came down, it had been the tallest tree in the town of Shirley, Massachusetts. Very probably old growth, the entire top was just a segment of the plank I purchased from the retired dairy farmer, who, in true Yankee fashion, refused to let such a good tree go to waste and made it into planks.
The pilot boat itself was pilot number 5 from New York Harbor. Pilot boats had to be extremely fast and able, and this design shows a flexible sail plan and sweet lines. Somewhere I have a slew of pilot boat designs but have not had an opportunity to carve another. Beautiful boats like this are hard to resist.
My father’s favorite ship was the S.S. President Tyler. He sailed aboard it whenever possible from his first voyage around 1932 till he came ashore in 1946, the year I was born. Several World and Asian cruises made him a genuine China Sailor. Sailors, merchant or naval, can have deep relationships with their ships. Call it loyalty, affection, longing, or call it what it really can be – romance. I know, I have an ache for a certain ketch I’ll never see again. Women are known to jealous of ships and boats. My first mother in law was jealous of the Cap’ns Psyche. For the sake of peace, she hid it well. My mother was not so diplomatic about my father’s love of the sea, and “that ship.” She had been a sea widow throughout their marriage and two pregnancies. Like many sea widow’s, there came a time when the husband was expected to “swallow the anchor.” More than a few arguments ended with my father threatening to go to the hiring hall and “look for a ship.” So growing up, the Tyler was a sensitive issue. We’d regularly drive along the Hudson River to where the reserve fleet was anchored. He was looking for the Tyler. My mother was never on any of these excursions.
I had seen my father’s pictures onboard the Tyler, But I had never seen a photo of the ship itself. My mother was famous for editing her life, so it’s more than likely that she disposed of those photos when she threw out dad’s cruise scrapbooks. For her, those were not good times.
Many years later, I was teaching marine carving at the WoodenBoat School in Maine. Teaching at WoodenBoat is not just an opportunity to learn. It’s an opportunity to grow as a person through the freindhips formed with the individuals you meet there. One year one of my students was a former Master Mariner who worked for the American Bureau of Shipping. We talked about ships one night, and I told him all that I knew of the Tyler and my father’s affection for the ship. I mentioned that I’d love to carve a portrait of the Tyler but could not find enough data to start the project. I thought no more about the conversation, and at the end of the course, said goodbye to my students and returned to Massachusetts.
About three weeks later, a large envelope arrived from the ABS (American Bureau of Shipping). In it was were copies of plans and articles relating to the class of vessel to which the Tyler had belonged; enough to start the portrait. My student had searched the ABS library for the documentation that I needed.
The Tyler was my first large portrait. I can now look at it and see a dozen things that I would and could do differently with twenty years of experience carving portraits. But when you finish a project it’s best to move on, or you’ll never finish.
It sails on my wall with a cherry ocean and sky heading east from Japan or China towards Los Angelos. I think my father is pleased that his ship is restored to an essential place in our lives, through the unexpected kindness of a fellow seaman.
I’ve been interested in steam/sail transition vessels for years. Ships with steam Auxillary and later sail auxiliary revolutionized travel at sea. Oceanic travel was no longer at the mercy of the winds. Servia has the distinction of three significant innovations in passenger travel: the first passenger liner built of steel, first liner built with electric lighting, and significantly improved accommodations for third-class passengers. Elegantly fitted out as she was, she lasted a bare year as the Cunard flagship. Servia failed to win the coveted trophy, the Blue Ribband, awarded to ships making record crossings of the Atlantic.
Built-in 1881 by 1900, she was being sailed under bare poles, dependent on her steam engines. Servia was sent to the scrapers by 1910.
I have portrayed Servia as she might have looked on her first voyage to New York. Graceful, under a press of sail. Her modified barque rig is propelling Servia towards New York Harbor. Framed by a shop built teak frame, Servia is primarily constructed of cherry with mixed media detail parts and paint. Servia itself is LOA (length overall) 18.75 inches (476.25 millimeters). The portrait framed is 29.25 inches wide (743 millimeters) and 12.5 inches ( 314.5 millimeters) tall.
While teaching, I always like to decorate the workshop with carving examples for students to use as a reference. Week-long excursions to teach away from home mean emptying the house of many of my carvings. But samples in three dimensions often are better than pictures or demonstration, and the extra work was worth it. During one summer course, A student was working on an eagle and suddenly stopped, got up, and went over to an eagle billet head. He picked it up and turned the head away from him. Noticing me watching, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “it was watching me.” Smiling, I pointed out that he was perfecting the eagle’s body plan and feathers without working on the head, most notably the eye. He asked me why it mattered, and I told him that it was essential to fair the contours of the head and neck into the body, so the eagle looked all of one piece when finished. The head is temporarily attached to the body with a screw while you carve the neck fair to the body. ” But why was it watching me?” Well, I explained, years ago, while I was first carving eagles, a talented carver from Boothbay Harbor advised me to always start the head before detailing and finish the eye first. There was a practical reason for this. The eye was a delicate piece of work, and if not done right could ruin the whole birdie. He then added that he had been taught to do the eye first so the eagle could oversee the carving’s remainder. ” As I was taught, so am I teaching you.” I then turned the eagle about so it’s beady eyes were on the student. ” Being that you haven’t done the eye first, this birdie’s cousin in watching you.” I can be a first-class pain sometimes.
I carved the eyes on that particular eagle with a “tunnel” eye effect. With that manner of carving, you could get the impression that the eye watches you and moves with you. To someone easily spooked, like my student, it could be an unpleasant sensation. There are several ways to carve eagle eyes for traditional marine eagles. Please note that if you carve more realistic styles, these will not appeal to you. I’m a nineteenth-century carver stuck in the twenty-first century. Be all modern if you like. Another ships carver reminded me that most people do not get close eough to smell the eagle; all these things in full size are meant to be viewed from a distance. Here are some examples of eyes:
Those of you familiar with the U.S.S Constitution may recognize the featured photo as one of the boarding planks on the Constitution. It’s been a frequently carved design for me since I first saw it, and I’ve used it to grace chest and box tops over the years. Despite being an intricate design, it is not a hard carving project. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know that I plunder designs. I love to alter things, pull elements out of context, and place them in new settings. It’s a common technique for artisans and artists. The boarding plank design’s most salient feature, for me, was the head.
At some time in the ’90s, a client wanted something carved on the end of a tiller; the usual Turk’s Head knot was not what he wanted. I plundered the boarding plank for the design, and the client sailed away very pleased. Here is the prototype for the tiller head:
Later, I again used the head for some quickly carved walking stick heads. Never meant to be fully featured carvings the stick heads were “sketches” that I could carve and sell as I worked. They sold well at boat shows.
Usable design elements are in plain sight within other designs. Plunder away!
We all want to be instant experts. One of my sensei describes this in terms of the training montages that are standard fare in martial arts movies; the neophyte progresses from clumsy beginner to skilled pro in thirty seconds of cinematic snapshots. The rest of us suffer from dissatisfaction and disappointment from being less than optimal for much longer. Not every time, but more frequently than I’d like, I get confronted with the unique. And, all of a sudden I am a neophyte once more. Incorporating new materials, using new types of paints, complex constructions, and most especially very small parts that need fabrication all create confrontations with the problematic.
When I was doing banners, quarter boards, transoms, and the odd eagle, the problems were mostly mechanical – design layout, curvature to fit, and calculating shadows in carved lettering.
Boat and ship portraits offer many more issues. I am presenting a practice piece of the very first boat portrait I ever did. Remember, practice pieces are exactly like the rough sketches you do of a subject before you paint – the practice is to work out the approach, shapes, and rendering before you start the actual work. Being that carving is subtractive, this saves you from ruining expensive wood and wasting time.
Over the years, I’ve done many portraits. I’ve borrowed techniques from model makers, painters, and illustrators. I’ve also had to develop some tricks of my own. The single most important thing will seem trite: challenge is what differentiates those who are growing from those who are standing still intellectually and as artists.
There are about two years between my first practice piece and my rendering of a cat boat for a mast hoop portrait. Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that’s left before fitting into the hoop
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