The gallery was not humming or buzzing, but virtually vibrating with excitement as folks milled around “The Art of Boat Building” exhibit at the Featherstone’s Francine Kelly Gallery opening on Sunday night. It’s a brilliant, museum-quality exhibition. There’s something for everyone in the show. Come for the glorious artwork and photographs, the real tools, small and large models, and more. There are stations laid out in a chronological way, depicting the process of making a boat from design to launch. And without being overwhelming, there is just enough label information to help us understand what we’re seeing and how that stage moves the boat to its next phase of completion. The exhibit is guest-curated by boat builder Nat Benjamin, and Tom Dunlop and Alison Shaw, co-creators of the book “Schooner.”
Claire Ganz, who lives in Chilmark full-time, said that what brought her to the exhibit was “a combination of the boatbuilding, which I’ve always wanted to know more about, and I’ve seen from afar, and the idea of a true exhibit so that it would be even better than visiting the shop. It’s been phenomenal. The presentation of the images and the objects are done in a way where each section makes sense and tells a story. It educates me and touches my heart at the same time.”
When you come through the initial portal, the title “The Art of Boat Building” is literally right in front of you so you’re immediately oriented. Ganz pointed out the brilliance of the curatorial skill, explaining, “To the left I have the ‘Design’ section and the ‘Launch’ section is to the right, which I know is going to be the end of the show. You immediately register that you will start out with ‘Design’ and follow the narrative around the large gallery. It’s designed to lead me. In each section you literally see what it would be like to be working on this boatbuilding process. I’m experiencing learning about it, but also Kate Hancock has displayed it this way so that I’m literally stepping into the boatbuilders’ world. I’m not just learning from a distance. Each section bridges that distance. I’m carried along like the waves, the wind has caught me, and I am going. Then you have a sailboat that is fully rigged, with the sails up, in the middle of the exhibit! The whole thing, it works. It’s brilliant.”
Dena Porter, herself a professional photographer, says that you see many components that add to the story. “So I think it’s a perfect complementary approach,” Porter said. “Showing the wood, the tools, the photography. I think it’s spectacular, and you don’t see pieces in process and the finished product in a show often like this. It’s unique and refreshing. Its timing, being October, it’s like the last chance you get to get your sail in before you pull your boat out of the water.”
Nat Benjamin, Tom Dunlop & Alison Shaw
Alison Shaw, co-creator of the book “Schooner” with Tom Dunlop, said she’d like people to walk away from the exhibit with the knowledge of just how impressive wooden boatbuilding is.
“Just the idea of how impressive it is that wooden boatbuilding is such an amazing tradition and art that has not only been preserved by Gannon and Benjamin, but they’ve elevated it to an art form,” Shaw said. “I stopped by after teaching a weeklong workshop, and I was stunned by what I saw and how original and unique it was, and how Kate Hancock tied all the threads together into one really beautiful package.”
Tom Dunlop explained what he thinks is the crux of the exhibit. “Here’s what I think the miracle is,” Dunlop said. “All of these companies doing idiosyncratic things all along the different waterfronts, and then you have a place like Featherstone that can show it off in that way. I just defy anybody to find another place on the Eastern Seaboard, maybe anyplace anywhere, where there is this variety of work being done, and then a place like Featherstone to showcase it. It’s just one of those things that makes me so grateful to live here.”
Gallery manager Kate Hancock has used the schooner as the through-line for the exhibit.
“I want people to come away with a kind of understanding of building a boat, but more importantly to honor and appreciate that on this Island we have this incredible art form that is part of our everyday lives, and it’s very unique,” Hancock said. “It’s very special, and there aren’t many places that can say that, that they have an industry that is also an art form. To me, it’s what the Vineyard is all about, and why I live here.”
“The Art of Boat Building,” at Featherstone’s Francine Kelly Gallery through Nov. 11. Visit featherstoneart.org for more information.