Bill Mayher 2010

Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors

Two Coasts,
One Perspective

Often it seems as if for some people all roads lead to the Maine Coast. Maybe it’s the draw of scenery. Perhaps it’s the chance to get to know the natives, or the community of people who, after seeing a lot of the world, chose to settle here. Whatever the reason, many of us find ourselves bewitched by Maine; most can tell the story about when and how it happened. For the English artist James Dodds, becoming conscious of Maine for the first time worked this way:

Maynard Bray, the irrepressible wooden boat authority from Brooklin, Maine, was trolling through boatyards in the southeastern region of England. One morning in Maldon he happened upon Cook’s Shipyard, well known for its ongoing work on many of Britain’s remaining Thames barges. That morning the Cook’s crew had a sailing smack grounded out on the hard and was hoisting a freshly adzed stem section into place.

Both the scale of the project and the precision of the work reminded Maynard of things back home in Maine, where he had participated in the rebuilding the Hudson River sloop Clearwater at Billings Shipyard in Stonington and more recently started in at the Newbert and Wallace yard in Thomaston building a brand-new 19th century schooner, the John F. Leavitt. Both were large sawn-frame projects that called for a dozen or more traditional shipwrights, who at that time in Maine, were in worryingly short supply.

In conversation with the Cook’s boatbuilders, Bray suggested that if any of them were interested in a trans-Atlantic sojourn, they could find shipwright work in Maine. Once back from his travels, he didn’t give the matter further thought, but evidently his words lit a fire under James Dodds, the youngest member of the Cook’s crew.

Dogged by a complex set of learning differences that had made school an agony for him, Dodds had dropped out at age 15 to take a bottom-rung shipyard job at Cook’s. Typical of most teenagers, however, a radical move of this magnitude didn’t exactly constitute a life plan. Up until that point, in fact, Dodds hadn’t even bothered to file the paperwork necessary to make his four-year shipyard apprenticeship official. But suddenly, after Bray’s words of encouragement, shipyard work seemed less like a school avoidance strategy and more like a career with international possibilities.

It hardly matters that Dodds didn’t actually upstakes and move to Maine. What does matter is that at a critical time in Dodds’s life, a quick sketch of Maine’s maritime possibilities by a total stranger helped give him more focus and confidence in his abilities. Right off he pushed through the paperwork necessary to register his apprenticeship. Then when his four year term was up, he took an even more dramatic step; seekin to artistically expand upon his shipyard experiences, he enrolled in art college fulltime. Since that fateful decision he has emerged as one of England’s most compelling maritime artists.

JAMES DODDS’S WORK, ever grounded in his shipwright’s apprenticeship, brings stunning authenticity with every stroke of his brush. As for Maine, it took over three decades for him to finally travel here. Once again a stranger from Brooklin was a catalyst; this time the stranger was me.

Off on a two year working stint in England, I accidently ran across Dodds’s work in the window of a London gallery. When I went inside to explore further, what I saw were paintings of vessels under construction, paintings of work boats hauled up on beaches, paintings of ancient sailing craft brought back to life. The meticulousness of his rendering, his thoughtful layering on of texture, and most of all, his sure-handedness as a painter – a skill enabling him to apply pigments that managed to appear both muted and vivid simultaneously – these things produced in me that strongest of emotions – they made me homesick for the Maine Coast.

Not long afterward, Dodds and I became friends. The following summer he and his family visited me and mine in Brooklin.

As one might well expect from looking at his work, Dodds has an eye for critical details. Where some of us stumble through our days hardly distinguishing one thing from another, his American diary notes draw interesting distinctions between England and Maine, especially in the boatyards we visited. A few excerpts make the point:

“The tidy, well organized yards with their Herreshoff production line methods of building upside down and the ingenious building jigs used in peapod construction… I had never seen so many purpose-made jackstands in one place as in the yards we visited (In truth I had to ask what they were when I saw a load of them beside one shed.) At home we would have been sawing up 2X4s and hammering wedges for each boat… The yards I worked in back home are more like living museums with bits of boat name boards, etc. that no one could throw away.”

Looking over the ocean as a first time visitor, Dodds wrote: “The sharp contrast of the enveloping vertical line of the trees punctuated by boulder and rock makes me think of the vertical pictorial space of the Japanese print. Contrasted with this is the strong horizontal of a vast sea peppered by wooded islands stepping back to the horizon in a very pleasing way. Everything seems either very close or very far away, there seems to be less middle distance.”

When Dodds met a fisherman or sailor in Maine, one couldn’t help noticing the easy rapport between them, a rapport built on an unspoken mutual respect.

Along the estuaries of his home county of Essex, where James Dodds learned to sail, the principle elements of maritime life are mud and the comings-and-goings of the tide. This sticky, sucking mud can be risky, even lethal stuff. If, for example, a walker slogging across a mudflat is unlucky enough to fall face-forward, he probably won’t be able to gain sufficient purchase with his arms and legs to push himself free. Accidently grounding out on “saltings” (salt marshes) miles from home, therefore, can be more than an inconvenience; if one acts foolishly, it quickly becomes a life and death situation.

In Maine, danger most often comes in the form of rocks and ledges as opposed to mud, but both regions share hazards that are real enough to teach kids that careless actions have direct consequences, that taking command of a small vessel is inherently a high stakes endeavor. By the same token, those who master the local elements at a young age on either coast build a core strength that is palpable.

Throughout Dodds’s visit to Maine our conversations often turned toward how the eccentricities and vagaries of Coastal Maine compared to his home town of Wivenhoe in Essex and environs. Both regions, it seems, feature a yeasty blend of artists, writers, shipwrights and other less easily defined local characters. When Germaine Greer wrote of Essex as “the least gentrified, most countrified, and most idiosyncratic county in Britain,” she might have been describing broad swaths of the State of Maine.

All these elements combined to make Jamie feel easily at home here. Additionally, he was struck by the number of accessible wooden boats, the many conversations connecting the region’s history with its maritime and architectural design imperatives, and always the seashore’s wild edge. Sketching, taking photographs, talking to boatbuilders, he soon concluded that he should commit to a series of linocuts of the boatyards we were visiting.

Such a project would be no new thing for Dodds. Over many years back in England he has created a series of masterly linocuts featuring the coastal landscapes of Essex. These works, noteworthy for their strong linear sense, for their resolution of geometrical complexities into a powerful whole, and for the striking narrative power he achieves by combining contemporary and historical views into the same ingenious panorama, have become a bread-and-butter crop for the artist.

When you look at one of the boatyard prints reproduced here, try to conjure up the image of Dodds deep at work in his Wivenhoe studio that is attached to his house. Big canvases of Jamie’s oil paintings of boats provide the visitor (and one assumes the artist himself) with a series of inspirations. On virtually every horizontal surface are stacks of maritime reference books as well as deadeyes, shackles, carved sea birds, and other sea going flotsam and jetsum. An oil stove stands at the ready if tea is called for. And always Radio Four, the BBC’s legendary intellectual treasure is tuned to some compelling conversation or other that keeps Jamie engaged and fascinated with a surprisingly broad gamut of current topics.

The linocuts of the size and complexity Dodds regularly produces are not for the casual artist. Each one involves several months of painstaking work. First, Dodds draws out the scene in a mirror image of the actual. Then he carefully carves away the linoleum to create the negative (white) spaces.

To build the image he has drawn out on the block, Dodds naturally combines sketches and photos taken on the scene, several of them derived from Ben Mendlowitz’s iconic Calendar of Wooden Boats. Beyond the visual material, Dodds’s research often includes conversations about the yards themselves so he is able to include significant images from the yards’ histories. The Bridges Point Boatyard print, for example, shows Wade Dow’s father’s lobsterboat, the Tranquil C, in the foreground and a Wade Dow-built Bridges Point 24 on a cradle in the background. The Brooklin Boat Yard print reflects three eras simultaneously: the present era of Bob Stephens, the recent past of Joel White, and the distant past of Nathanewl Herreshoff: Bequia, the 92-foot-long Bob Stephens cold-molded yawl commands the center, High Times, the Joel White-designed and -built plank-on-frame picnic boat is on the ways to the right, while the late Joel White himself sails his beloved Herreshoff-designed Shadow in the waters to the left.

In the Rockport Marine print, Adventure, a historic replica of an eighteenth-century colonial trading vessel built there for the Charlestowne River Landing, show in the doorway, then there is Primrose, owned by Tom Kiley, a valued member of the yard crew.

Soon after Dodds arrived in Maine, he was introduced to the work of Carroll Thayer Berry, a Rockport artist who worked in linocut between 1945 and 1978. As it turns out, both mens’ seascapes already shared many motifs in the way such elements as sea and sky are rendered. Beyond this, Dodds was struck by the power Berry achieved by adding a second color to his linocuts. In three of Dodds’s Maine boatyard prints, color has been added.

Although Dodds’s first visit lasted only two weeks, his natural affinity for the Maine coast has taken deep root. When he returned to England in the fall of 2008 he painted more than a half dozen large oils featuring Maine built boats. This summer he will return again to Maine to continue his work, his trip culminating in a large show of his newest paintings at Rockland’s Dowling-Walsh Gallery in August.

Several years ago in an interview Dodds said, “The feeling of belonging to a place, being part of the rhythm of the tide and the sea – this and the spiritual contemplation of making things, is what really matters. It is something you can’t own but which is part of you. This is the sense of enduring value I try to put in my work.”

After seeing the paintings and prints shown here and at the Dowling Walsh Gallery, no one can doubt that he has earned the right to belong to this place as well as to his native England.

Bill Mayher