Alan Cottle — the eyes have it
Photo by Susan Safford
On a recent soggy afternoon, Alan Cottle peered over his wire-rimmed glasses as he shaped a blob of molten glass at the end of a blow pipe. He seemed calm, even relaxed, but his focus was intense, as if he were seeing things the rest of us might miss. What he saw told him just how much pressure to exert, how fast to rotate the pipe.
Glass-blowing is the just the latest craft to catch the fancy of Mr. Cottle, 49, of West Tisbury. At various times he's been a carpenter, horse trainer, heavy equipment operator, mason, boat builder, cattle breeder, farmer, and who knows what all else. If something needs doing, or if doing something new intrigues him, he'll figure out how to do it.
Mr. Cottle's interest in glass-blowing goes way back, to elementary school, where he struggled mightily because of difficulty reading. "Priscilla Fischer, the teacher, sent me off-Island and had me analyzed and they said I was severely dyslexic," he said late last month during a break from blowing glass.
"There were two things I remember from school," Mr. Cottle recalled. "I liked May Day. You brought Mrs. Fischer an apple or something in the morning, and she read you a story, which I liked very much, and then you went out and hid, anywhere in the whole town, and she'd come find you — she never found me."
A trip to Joe Serpa's
The other high point was the annual field trip to Joe Serpa's glass-blowing shop in Edgartown. "He had a little studio like mine, even smaller," Mr. Cottle said. "We used to go down there at least once a year and watch them blow glass. I would like to do that here — bring kids in and let them watch, but the legality of it, I don't know about that part."
Watching glass been blown is fascinating, almost mesmerizing, especially when two people are working together, the approach Mr. Cottle prefers. Timing and coordination are critical. Too slow and the glass will start to set and become unworkable. Too fast and imperfections may form in the glass and serious burns on the blowers.
Inside the furnaces, the temperature is 2,000 degrees. Mr. Cottle was working with Russell Carson, who works at Martha's Vineyard Glass Works on State Road in North Tisbury. Their work together seemed like it had been choreographed. "And it's fun," Mr. Cottle said. "I like to have fun when I work."
The border between work and fun has been vague since Mr. Cottle was a young boy. "I could run a Skilsaw by the time I was five," he said. "I started driving a forklift when I was six. I built forts, but they turned into something like houses. By the time I was ten, twelve years old, I had pretty much a regular house out here." "Here" is a few acres behind E.C. Cottle Inc., the lumberyard on Lambert's Cove Road. Alan Cottle is the youngest of five children — two boys and three girls — of Edmund and Elizabeth Cottle.
Mr. Cottle's father wasn't always aware of what his enterprising son was up to. "I can remember one day, when the yard was closed, and I was showing off for one of my friends, and I went in there and started the forklift up and my father had a brand-new truck and I backed right into it. After that he knew."
His first mini-bike
Earning 50 cents an hour for picking up around the lumberyard, Mr. Cottle bought his first mini-bike when he was eight. "A Trail-70 that I drove all over the Island," he said. "I could go from here to downtown Edgartown, no problem at all, hardly see a house."
There's no hiding the sparkle in Mr. Cottle's face when he recalls some of his childhood adventures — or more recent accomplishments, for that matter. He has an infectious, full-body laugh that he directs at himself as often as not, and when he smiles, he puts his entire face into it. Still, he pulled up short now and again when he was recollecting, worried that he sounded conceited. He enjoys looking back, obviously, but it's with a mixture of pride and amusement, and it's always self-effacing.
Along with the fun came plenty of hard work. "I started working for Herbert Hancock when I was 16," Mr. Cottle said. "My parents used to go to Florida for two or three months. They left right after New Year's, I was a junior, and I didn't go back to school." At least not until his parents came home.
Once he finished high school, he signed on full-time for the next seven years. "I worked for Herbert from six in the morning till two in the afternoon, didn't take lunch or anything," he said. "And the last couple of years I worked there, I worked at Gannon and Benjamin from two till six or seven at night, building boats. I'd been building straight stuff, and I wanted to learn to build crooked stuff."
Another skill acquired. Under a tarp next to Mr. Cottle's new glass studio is a 29-foot sloop that he finished in 2003. And under an adjoining shed is the frame of a 40-foot powerboat. "It's a project," he said. "You know, I like to keep busy."
In the mid 1980s, Mr. Cottle started working on his own, doing tractor work, stonework, cutting cord wood, digging holes and trenching.
Horses, cows, and hay
Along with his work off the place, Mr. Cottle also started farming — breeding draft horses, raising cows, cutting hay. "I started haying in 1988," he said. "I used to do a lot of haying over at Fred Fisher's, which is where I met Deb."
Mr. Cottle and Debby Farber married in 1991. Today, she runs the farm, mostly, in addition to being an EMT. She's known for producing fabulous vegetables and for treating her animals at least as well as she treats herself.
It's not a big farm, but it's productive. "We sell five, six cows a year, 12 pigs, and we get 25, 30-dozen eggs a day," Mr. Cottle said. "And the hay does well: I make 10,000 bales a year. Between the hay and the chickens, it's paid the mortgage on this house for 20 years. That makes me feel good — to take a dream and turn it into something that works."
Off the farm, Mr. Cottle works at everything from stonework, to running an excavator, to advising clients on how to lay out their property. "I'm very lucky because the people I work for trust me, and I trust them and I like them," he said. "I have what you call a photographic mind, I guess you could say. I can look at the land and see what's going to happen before it even happens. I believe it's part of being dyslexic. I can see things in front of me."
The variety of Mr. Cottle's work is matched by the variety of his interests, which seem never-ending — sailing, traveling, working horses, going to the Catskills.
Let the sun beat down
"Being out on the water," he said, "not just sailing. I've got a speedboat, too. I love that thing. What I like to do is go cut hay at 6 in morning in the summertime, and ted [flip] it out by 9, 10 o'clock, and let the sun beat down and go out on the water and fool around."
And the horses: "I love working horses, I've trained horses, worked horses, bred them and everything else," Mr. Cottle said. "I've done tons of weddings, that's why I bought the horses originally. I got hundreds of brides on time to the church on time." He has two carriages, one that he built, the other that he bought from the Amish, in Shipshewana, Indiana. "Now we just use 'em on Sundays — the horses are getting old. We just go up to the end of the road to the supermarket, or to the beach."
Mr. Cottle has driven across the country more than once and been overseas many times. "When I was young I went with a friend to Europe — Amsterdam, Swiss Alps, France — on a train ride," he said. "Deb's father grew up in Romania, Transylvania, so I've been there, saw Dracula's castle. And Hungary, Israel, Kenya, Egypt, Panama — quite a few places. I like to see things."
Heading for the hills
These days, much of his travel ends about four and a half hours from Woods Hole, 20 miles west of the Hudson River, in the Catskills. "I go up once a month, religiously, five nights, usually," Mr. Cottle said. "I built a house out in the middle of nowhere, no electricity — like my fort," he said. "As far as the eye can see I can't see a single light, even in the wintertime. Can't hear any highways, no light pollution. I built the whole place, from scratch, on these four-day trips, cellar hole, everything — just like I used to do for Herbert.
"There's a beautiful sugarbush, about 15 acres, that I've cleared out and I'm building a sugar house all out of stone, with a slate roof. And I have a sawmill there that I bought from Ken Gillies, who used to have it out behind the West Tisbury dump. I saw most of the white oak that G&B uses to bend into the frames and keels. I go up there, and I cut it, and bring it home, and within a week or two it's in a boat."
Back home, in case there isn't enough going on, there's glass blowing to fill up Mr. Cottle's time. It took a few years, but he never forgot the fascination he felt watching Joe Serpa some 40 years ago. In 2003 he took a course at the Rhode Island School of Design, and since then he's rented space at the Glassworks three or four times a year, and hired Mr. Carson or another employee to team up with him.
Two years ago, Mr. Cottle decided to create his own studio. "I dug it all out last winter, jacked the roof up, it was like building a house," he said. "And right around Thanksgiving was the first time we blew glass here, me and Russell."
Once again, he's found something he loves to do and figured out how to do it. You have to wonder what will come next, what he sees when he slides his glasses back up his nose, pulls his cap down, and lets his eyes loose out in front of him.