We sometimes wonder how many people living on the Vineyard are actively engaged in creative pursuits. Is it 10 percent? Thirty percent? More? In “The Urge to Create: Vineyard Portraits,” Jane Dreeben collected 50 written and photographic profiles of Island artists and creative people. As we perused this book, we started wondering about Volumes 2, 3, and 4. How many volumes of 50 could there be on one Island?
Below is an edited excerpt from the book, which is available at Bunch of Grapes.
“My mom’s an antique dealer, and the wealth of stuff that people made is everywhere. Folk art from the backwoods of Maine. Some little doodad that someone carved on an everyday object, like the knob on the handle of the paddle, and just had this ergonomic sweetness to it. The way they’d carved the blades, and they were all different. All these guys, they must have been scrapping awful hard. We don’t have the time to just fashion stuff and do these kinds of things nowadays; there’s too many distractions with the Internet and TV. The world now is fast. It seemed like everybody made things, and everybody put something of themselves into everything and had their own way of doing things. It was part of the fabric of life, and I think it is just built into the human species.
I know all kids draw, but what I remember that really rocked me was that my parents took me to this guy — Mr. Blanchard — who was a potter. I think it was like a Saturday morning, send the kids off. I went to see this guy, and he was a great teacher. He got people building out of clay. He turned you loose, and then he had the glazes, and it was great. I was probably 9 or 10. That rocked my world, just being able to work with clay. And I see my kids, when I carve around the house. I carve birds and fish and snakes and people and stuff around the house. The funny thing is, just from whittling, from carving around the kids, they come over and say, “Ooooh, what are you doing?” and it’s so nice to have them come around, and then they’ll hold it. I’ll catch them feeling it, and running it around in their hand, and up against their cheek, and I can see it going into them, like I’m passing the torch, which is a nice thing that I’ve just noticed.
I’m pretty much self-taught at everything. I guess it must have been old guys I saw here and there that I thought looked cool. I was always the kid that was looking at the old guys, or looking at the musicians onstage. For some reason I always had a fascination with the old guys who could do everything. I had a few really good mentors that knew some stuff, some old-world stuff, some secret stuff. They could catch more fish than anybody, or make a better net, or fix a machine with baling wire and castaway junk. I just wanted to be those guys so bad. I was always that guy, always getting up close to the fire — creeping up really close to the stage. I don’t know what I thought I was going to get. I’d worm my way up to the edge and look at Muddy Waters as close as I could.
Half the thing about creativity is having the juice to run that frigging idea into the ground. Get it on the paper, make the song, bring it to the people. There are so many beautiful ideas that have been dreamed in the night. If you don’t get your ass out of bed and write that thing down, you take the chance that if you go back to sleep, you’re going to lose it. One of my favorites has been fishing. Inventing rigs, and when you’ve got a problem and you know it’s a surmountable problem, and you are working on that thing obsessively, and then the answer just kind of comes to you; I love those moments. Anyone who has ever been obsessive has seen that answer come, just bang, crack. I like working with my hands. I’ll sit there. It’s hard for me to sit still. I can do it, if I’m working on a song. In the morning I can usually make myself sit, because my mind is working fast enough. I can do it for an hour or so, and get something down and feel it wasn’t a waste of time, as I wasn’t out doing something, but generally I feel better about life if I’m moving.
I loved hitchhiking, and I remember my dad told me about hitchhiking and I was totally fascinated. You can do that? You can go to the side of the road? And stick your thumb out and go someplace and not really know? Wow! And you can change your mind while you are going here and go there? That blew my mind. This hitchhiking thing got deep in my blood. I started hitchhiking when I was 14 or 15 on my own, and I was going all over the place. I guess I must have read “On the Road,” and then I started to ride freight trains. There was one near where I was living, and we tried that one, a little, short 10-mile ride. And the harmonica, I couldn’t play the thing, but I had it. And I tried it, and I just loved that whole hokey romance of riding the rails and playing the harp. It was always right there in your pocket.
For a few years I would leave, hitchhike out to California in winter. Then I would go shad fishing in the Connecticut River, gillnetting. And then I’d come out here and work. I always had work out here. You could see that right away, it was going to be just fine that way. There was just so much fat on the land. If you wanted to work, you were going to be OK, which was something that was very attractive after hitting the road and being a bum. You needed to tune into the fat on the land, and my antennae were jingling about Martha’s Vineyard. That really says it all right there. I just knew right away, and it never let me down. The Vineyard, if you were enterprising, and willing to just keep coming up with new ideas, there was always a way to make it around here.”