by Polly Saltonstall
Editor, Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Magazine
When I look at Guy Taplin’s sinuous bird carvings and James Dodds’ monumental boat portraits, I am struck by the curves: the elegant sheerline and bent wooden ribs of a dinghy, the arc of a canoe stern, the s-line of a transom, the suggestive loop of a running curlew’s beak, the figure eight formed by the intersecting necks of four preening spoonbills. Like Celtic knots that fold endlessly back on themselves and signify eternity, these curves convey motion and life. They give both Dodds’ workboats and Taplin’s birds a spiritual aspect, and invite the viewer to a higher plane.
Dodds and Taplin live practically next door to each other in the small town of Wivenhoe on a southeastern corner of the British coast, and they both are represented by Messum’s Gallery in London. They’ve been good friends for years, but this exhibit at Dowling Walsh is their first together.
Both are inspired by history – Taplin by working decoys and Dodds by traditional boats and their builders – but those curves, a sense of mystery, and whimsy transform Taplin’s curlews, cranes, ibis and flocks of shorebirds into objects of joy, and Dodds’ eel boats, dinghies, and one-designs into vessels of wonder and exploration.
Dodds’ boats provide a means of weathering life’s storms, while Taplin’s birds lift our spirits. The combined impact makes me wonder why it’s taken so long to bring these two talented friends together in one show. The closest thing man has made to a living creature is a boat, and here they are side by side, living birds and boats.
Dodds trained as a shipwright and sailed on skiffs, large and small, before ending up in art school. His work celebrates both the technical process of building a boat and of building a painting of a boat. Like a builder, he works his way up from the ribs and the backbone and labors over layers in the surface of his paint.
He begins a painting by visiting yards and taking photographs of boats, looking for the best angle, the one that shows the boat’s essence.
“I like to paint boats out of the water as that is how a builder would look, showing the sheer line and its subtle curves,” he says. “But also in my head I’m very aware of the structure. I am almost building them in my head while I’m painting.”
By isolating the boats from both land and water in the final paintings, he gives them a dramatic presence; his peapod, for example, is more than just a traditional workboat; rather it’s a vessel for dreams and possibilities. At the same time, his precise rendering of ribs, sheer planks and gunnels pays homage to the builders’ craft.
“I like to say I’m celebrating the art of the boat builder and very consciously using the word art,” he says. “Sometimes craft is diminished in the eyes of fine art and it shouldn’t be. It’s a great skill and skill isn’t celebrated as much as it should be.”
Unlike Taplin, whose visits to the states have been further south, Dodds has been to Maine several times. His first trip here was at the invitation of Bill Mayher, a resident of Brooklin, Maine. During a teaching stint in London, Mayher saw Dodds’ elegant boat paintings and told the British painter that he had to come to Maine, arguably the wooden boat capital of the world.
After that visit Dodds painted several iconic Maine boats, including a peapod and a beetle cat. He also has made linocuts of boatyards around Penobscot Bay, including Rockport Marine, Brooklin Boat Yard, the North End Shipyard in Rockland, and Benjamin River Marine. The style of these images mirrors prints he has made of yards and towns along the British coast. In each, the scene takes on a convex curve, as through the viewer were seeing it through a fisheye lens.
“I like to curve a town to make it suggestive of a boat shape,” explains Dodds, “partly as a composition to hold your attention; also I like the idea of the boat being a symbol a of community.”
Unlike Dodds, Taplin never went to art school. He likes to think of himself as an outsider and says it’s important to him that people be able to enjoy his work without knowing a lot about art.
“If art’s any good, it’s a transference between two people. It talks to them really,” he explains.
An only child born at the outbreak of WWII, Taplin was shuffled around as a child, and by the time he was a teenager no longer felt like he belonged in any one place. “I compensated by going into nature and finding myself in it,” he says, describing how this immersion in the outdoors became a lifelong passion.
He’ll talk your ears off if you let him, with stories, references to books, history and spiritual writings, but he considers himself to be an artistic and intellectual vagabond. He held many different jobs, ranging from lorry driver, lifeguard, meat porter, clothing designer, and laborer, before, as he puts it, “stumbling” into art.
He even studied to be a Buddhist monk, before landing a position as head keeper in a park where he learned about decoys and began making copies for his own entertainment. Eventually he took some of his birds to a gallery where every single one sold. A new career was born.
“When there is no path you make one by going, as the Buddhists say,” says Taplin.
He carves each of his birds from driftwood and other materials he finds on frequent beachcombing expeditions around his home and elsewhere – for example, the faded blue boards used as bases and backdrops of many of the pieces come from Portugal’s barrier islands, salvaged off abandoned fishing boats. Taplin knows his birds and often will start a piece by referring to a bird book to understand the basic silhouette of a specific species. From then on, the actual shape the carvings take comes from inside his head and heart as he works away alone in his studio, often listening to the radio.
“I make these things, from want of a better word, out of the unconscious,” he says. “There are people who collect the names of birds they’ve seen and know a lot about them. I’m not interested in that. What I’m interested in is the emotional side.
“Why do I do birds?” he continues. “Basically it’s because they move all the time. My work is about motion and the constant change. Even though they are sitting there and not moving, they’ve got the feeling of movement about them.”
During a lovely long rambling conversation, Taplin tells me that all his favorite artists and writers are untrained outsiders like him. “One of the American poets I like is (Robert) Frost. He wrote that poem about the road less taken. That’s the road I took. The whole thing about art is you can make your own interpretation, and everyone gets there in the end.”
Editor, Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Magazine