“I’ve been a blessed man all my life,” said Ulysses Lear of Oak Bluffs. “Anything I set my mind to do, I was able to do.”
A testament to that declaration can be found in a small selection of Mr. Lear’s handiwork, which is on display in the main lobby of the Oak Bluffs Library.
A standing display case features a few of Mr. Lear’s large scrimshawed pieces: a remarkable wooden necklace carved, chain links, pendant, and all, from a single piece of wood; and most impressive of all, a small replica of Napoleon’s ornate inaugural carriage that was meticulously carved to scale with all working parts, upholstered, and painted over the course of 12 years.
The work on display represents a lifetime of precision work by a self-taught craftsmen. The 85-year-old Mr. Lear, who has lived on the Island since 1967, has variously engaged in woodcarving, scrimshaw, metal work, jewelry making, photography, and leatherwork — each hobby begun with a desire to replicate some craft that interested him. His muse, model, and the recipient of the most of the fruits of his labors was his wife, Muriel, who passed away in 2009.
Mr. Lear started making scrimshaw pieces for his late wife after she presented him with a whale’s tooth from Nantucket. At that time he was living in Los Angeles, where he worked as the AFL-CIO’s union representative and apprentice coordinator for nine California counties, and she was living on the Vineyard where she had been born and raised. He was in the habit of buying jewelry for his wife from wherever his work took him and he had purchased a number of scrimshaw pieces for her during their shared trips to Nantucket. “In the early ’60s Nantucket had barrels of that stuff [whale bone]for a dollar a piece,” he recalled.
Without instruction, Mr. Lear made a sepia-toned carving on the large tooth with a sewing machine needle. “I presented it to her and she couldn’t believe what I had done,” Mr. Lear said. His original work — a drawing of a sailor sitting on his sea chest as well as another large tooth with a color design of a woman in exotic dress — are on display at the library. The beads from which these two pendant pieces hang were also fashioned by Mr. Lear, as were matching earring sets.
“My wife was the type of person who you couldn’t buy her a necklace unless you bought the other matching pieces.” Mrs. Lear was a successful professional model, who had once been engaged to the boxer Joe Louis, when the couple met in Los Angeles. “I fell in love when I met her. It was love at first sight,” Mr. Lear said. He added with obvious admiration, “I used to go to the movies and I’d see her on the newsreels.”
Mrs. Lear was known for her fashion sense and she wore all of her husband’s statement jewelry pieces — including about 150 scrimshaw carvings — with pride. After watching someone carve a chain from a single piece of wood, Mrs. Lear asked her husband to try his hand at this feat and he completed the stunning wooden necklace on view at the library. It features connecting links and a large carved pea pod pendant. Inside of two side beads, small carved free-floating peas can be seen. “I like a challenge,” he said, which is evident in much of his work that features seemingly impossibly intricate details.
Eventually, Mr. Lear turned his hand to leatherwork, crafting jackets, vests, and sandals for his wife, as well as continuing with his jewelry work. In every endeavor, Mr. Lear taught himself. “If you give me instructions for something, I’ll throw them away. I want to figure it out for myself.”
In order to carve his first wooden piece, he bought a $6 jackknife. “Carvers said I was cheating,” he said. “They used chisels.” So Mr. Lear acquired some broken dentist’s tools and made chisels by tempering and shaping them. After doing a few pieces with chisels, he reverted to the jackknife.
Some of Mr. Lear’s large collection of carved ducks and other birds have been on display at the Bunch of Grapes and the Vineyard Haven Library, along with canes and walking sticks that feature little slots that hold moveable pieces.
Another piece on display at the Oak Bluffs Library is a tiny chain with a microscopic ball imbedded inside a groove. This piece is a tribute to Mr. Lear’s father, who was a whittler. Mr. Lear relates a story of how his father was able to secure a food voucher during the depression in exchange for a similar chain carved, by request, out of a matchstick.
Though certainly crafty, the artist is not fond of all arts. “I hate to paint,” he said. “I won’t paint any of my things. My wife was just the opposite. She loved to paint.” A few of Mrs. Lear’s paintings, displaying a real talent (she too was self-taught) and an eye for unusual color combinations, hang in Mr. Lear’s home, just a few doors down from the Oak Bluffs library.
The Napoleonic coach is the only work that Mr. Lear has ever painted. It’s very eye-catching in regal shades of blue, red, and purple — loyal to the original in every tiny detail. Mr. Lear inherited the project from his friend Woody, after the latter died. Said Mr. Lear, “I thought I’d finish it in two weeks. It took me 12 years.”
The piece has been constructed following detailed specs on the original, which Woody obtained from General Motors. The coach was designed by a company called Body by Fisher, who constructed the wooden frames for the original GM motorcars. Mr. Lear noted that an image of the coach can be found on a medallion that is placed inside the door on every GM car. You can see the medallion on display with the coach.
A self-described perfectionist, Mr. Lear insisted on including every detail of the original. All of the tiny parts, including door handles and window shades, which can barely be seen, are functional.
He faced many challenges in his determination to use authentic materials. For example: “How do you glue silk to wooden seats without the glue showing through?” Mr. Lear noted that he searched all over the world, literally, for 3/16-inch white silk ribbon for the window pulls. He finally located a piece (under someone’s bed) that was 1/16-inch over and trimmed it down to ensure everything was exactly to scale.
Mr. Lear described some of the coach’s details, saying, “The rim around the wheels is metal. The spokes have brass flowery things. A set of stairs folds up into a little compartment that has a lock on it. The hinges and door locks are all hand-made in brass.”
This is the first time that the coach has been on public display as it had been in storage off-Island. Mr. Lear has been campaigning to put his work on view at the Oak Bluffs Library since it opened six years ago. By choice he has never sold any of his work, but has given a good deal of it away.
Mr. Lear is an outgoing and affable man with a great sense of humor. He can often be found at the Oak Bluffs Library playing a very complicated, three-deck form of solitaire on the computer, or “holding court,” according to library assistant, Pam Speir. Many locals know Mr. Lear from his years working for a moped rental store on the Oak Bluffs harbor, or recognize him as the gentleman who rides around on a three-wheel motorcyle — a recent purchase. Mr. Lear bought a standard Yamaha motorcycle on a whim in 1998 that he rode for many years. His three-wheeler was chosen for its four-season utility.
Mr. Lear enjoys seeing young children admiring his work at the library and hopes to inspire kids with the display. His current project is replacing the batteries on a collection of non-functioning children’s watches. “I’ve given a few away already,” he said. “I enjoy the expression on a child’s face when I give them to them.”
Said Ms. Speir, “He’s the most generous man. He’s very funny. He has just been a wonderful presence here.”