Beyond jewelry: Frank Rapoza’s wampum art

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Frank Rapoza works on his wampum mosaics at his studio in West Tisbury. — Photo by Brooks Robards

Wampum has a storied history on the Vineyard. As beads fashioned from quahog shells, it served long ago as a currency for the Wampanoag and other Native American tribes in the Northeast. Now it appears most often in the form of signature Island jewelry. But West Tisbury carpenter, shipwright, and artist Frank Rapoza has turned wampum into another art form. He uses it to make finely detailed, one-of-a-kind mosaic panels. His work will be on display at the 19th annual Thanksgiving Martha’s Vineyard Artisans Festival on Friday, Nov. 27, and Saturday, Nov. 28.

Mr. Rapoza spends the summer months on Cuttyhunk, living on a boat he built himself. A longtime professional sailor and commercial fisherman, he calls it his retirement. He spends the rest of the year at his home in West Tisbury.

Mr. Rapoza first got interested in wampum mosaics when he saw the religious and patriotic mosaic tiles of the late Nashawena caretaker Manny Sarmento on display in the Cuttyhunk Union Methodist Church. He began crafting his own mosaic panels four years ago.

“I wanted to try something different,” he says. He doesn’t scavenge the Island’s beaches for the shells. Instead he buys them by the bushel from a New Bedford supplier. “It takes thousands and thousands of shells,” he explains, and he needs the whole shell, something not commonly available on the Island’s beaches. Only 10 percent of a shell is usable, because the rest is not thick enough or doesn’t have the purplish-blue color with which the artist primarily works. Mr. Rapoza recycles the discards, giving them to wampum jewelers or to a friend for his driveway.

The labor-intensive process of making the mosaic tiles takes about 50 hours, but Mr. Rapoza points out that the result will last hundreds of years. “They’re very durable,” he says — an understatement typical for the quiet, meticulous craftsman. As many as 30 people on-Island make wampum jewelry, but mosaic art is less popular. “Nobody else is doing this,” Mr. Rapoza says.

The artist says quahog shells are not the easiest material to work with, since they break easily. “Every time I do a piece, I find ways to be more efficient,” Mr. Rapoza says. “I make my own hand tools and do things to make the product more appealing.” He customizes other tools to suit the making of the tiles. His most recent acquisition is a ring saw with a diamond blade that fine-cuts the tiles. The blade is water-fed so the blade and the shell won’t overheat.

Mr. Rapoza works in a shop next to his West Tisbury home — both of which are the product of his carpentry skills. First, he rough-cuts the pieces using a diamond band saw. Then he flattens both shell sides on a lapidary wheel. Next comes the ring saw, which allows him to cut the tiles to the width he needs for a particular project. At this point, the individual tiles are fit together on a mold, and the resulting mosaic picture is attached to a panel with epoxy. The last part of the process is polishing — first with sandpaper, and then on a buffing wheel.

Rapoza constructs frames for the tiles from ebony salvaged from the Dolphin, a schooner shipwrecked off Cuttyhunk in 1854. Mr. Rapoza hires a diver to retrieve materials from the sunken ship. “He dives, and I tend the boat,” Mr. Rapoza says. Pins to hold the ¾-by-¾-inch frames together are made from swordfish bills supplied by New Bedford fishermen.

“It has kind of evolved,” Mr. Rapoza explains. “The first year I didn’t really have a sense of design. The second year I started doing landscapes.” By the third year, Mr. Rapoza was exploring shell colors, and his landscapes started getting a little more realistic. “I try to do 20 pieces a year,” he says. He now uses a broader range of materials, including other parts of the quahog shells, jingle shells, abalone, and stained glass. But his mosaics never venture far beyond what comes from the sea. A landscape may feature a geometric explosion of sunbeams or a moon fashioned from yellow jingle shells. Another mosaic picture portrays an arrowhead made from a swordfish bill and suspended in a field of crushed shells and stained glass.

More recently, Mr. Rapoza has branched out by painting a finely detailed watercolor of a peregrine falcon and setting it in an ebony frame with a narrow band of wampum. He hopes to finish a watercolor of an osprey in time for the upcoming Artisans Festival, and he’s also working on a five-pointed star. “I’ve made several six-pointed stars, but I’ve always wanted to make a five-pointed one,” he says. Commissions, like the six-pointed stars and one of a sword made from a swordfish bill, provide another source of work.

Mr. Rapoza arrived on the Island in 1976, after Shenandoah Captain Bob Douglas hired him to work on several of his boats. His reputation as a shipwright and caulker grew rapidly, and he worked on restoration of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan as well as construction of the modern-day version of the Amistad. The sea provides his workplace, his materials, and the inspiration for his art. All his work, which ranges in price from $2,900 to $3,000, can be viewed on his Facebook page, “Frank Rapoza Wampum Mosaics.”

19th annual Thanksgiving Artisans Festival, Nov. 27 and 28, 10 am to 4 pm, Agricultural Hall, West Tisbury.