Neil D’Arcy-Jones 2015

Wivenhoe artist James Dodds back at Firstsite Art Gallery

FOR a good few years Wivenhoe artist James Dodds was our very own East Anglian secret treasure.

His striking linocuts of seaside towns such as Aldeburgh, Southwold and Cromer as well as estuary locations closer to home like Brightlingsea, West Mersea and Rowhedge were, and still are, firm favourites on walls from the Tilbury Docks to the Norfolk Wash.

Today his work travels a lot further and as if to re-enforce his worldwide renown I have to wait to interview him for his latest show because of a trip to Bermuda where he’s been painting a boat.

And no ordinary boat at that.

“I was commissioned by a private individual,” James tells me, “who is then going to donate it to a museum on the island.

“It’s a boat that is very peculiar to Bermuda, only 14ft long but with a 40ft mast and 1’000 square feet of sail. It’s called the Bermuda Fitted Dinghy and has a crew of seven, mainly for ballast it has to be said. I think it’s the only dinghy race where you are allowed to finish with less crew than you started because as the race goes on you chuck your crew over the side to make it go faster. There’s only four of them left and each one is owned by a different boat club on the island.”

James and his wife Catherine went over to the island for a couple of weeks for the commission and although not a huge fan of travelling, it appears he loved very minute of it.

“The Royal Boatyard was a spectacular place to be,” he smiles. “Lots of bright colours and the boats built from Bermuda cedar. It was a pretty good place to be, especially for an artist.”

From today, James is going to be in another pretty special place, the Firstsite art gallery in Colchester.

It’s special for a number of reasons.

The first because ever since Firstsite’s former director Kath Wood dreamed up the idea of having a brand spanking new building to house contemporary art in the town, James has been longing to get his work in there.

Secondly, and actually far more importantly, Firstsite, then located in the Minories art gallery, was the place where James got his first big artistic break.

Back in 2001 Kath invited him to exhibit not only old work but new pieces, which included a series of striking ethereal ‘floating’ boat paintings.

As well as catching the eye of local art lovers, the subsequent Shipshape exhibition captured the attention of the Maritime Museum in London, who asked to exhibit them as did other venues up and down the country.

“Once you get someone like the Maritime Museum behind you, people start to take notice,” he adds. “But it was Firstsite who gave me that big break. The tour caught the eye of the London Gallery Messum’s and since then I’ve had six exhibitions with them.”

Born in Brightlingsea in 1957, James came from an artistic background, his father being the illustrator for the Eastern Daily Press, Andrew Dodds.

Self conscious about following in the family footsteps, he got a series of weekend jobs one of which was working on a sailing boat.

He says: “I actually used to tell people my dad was a shipwright, instead of an artist, because all the other kids’ dads were either involved with boatbuilding or fishing.”

After moving to Colchester, James left school at 15 to start as apprentice shipwright at Walter Cook and Sons, in Maldon, a job that ‘not only gave him his living for four years but also the subject matter for the rest of his life.

As with Shipshape in 2001, the chance to exhibit his work in the new Firstsite gallery has given James new challenges and opportunities to explore what he does.

“I’ve been wanting to paint a boat much like you loft it out,” he reveals. “Lofting out is how they draw up the plans for building boats and this is the first time I’ve been able to bring those two skills together, the boatbuilding and the painting.”

The end result, a spectacular 20ft Colchester fishing smack is the longest boat James has ever painted and after given a sneaky preview of it in his studio, I can tell you it’s a very impressive piece of work indeed.

Wood to Water will also see a series of boat carvings made out of the panels of the family’s old Brightlingsea beach hut.

“We had to replace my grandfather’s hut,” he explains. “This one replaced the hut that swept away in the 1953 floods and that original one was the very first beach hut in the town.

“It survived the recent flood because after 1953 my grandfather insisted on putting a trap door in the middle of it to let the water in and out. That said it was on its last legs so I decided to do something with the old roof panels.”

10 Dec 2015 / Neil D’Arcy-Jones

James Dodds: Wood to Water Firstsite Art Gallery, Lewis Gardens, Colchester.

December 11, until February 14. Monday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.