The Copperworks of Martha’s Vineyard, run by Scott McDowell and Annette Cingle, isn’t just a unique and treasured Island business — it’s a visual representation of all things Menemsha.
Upon rounding the corner toward the Texaco station side of Menemsha, toward Dutcher Dock and Larsen’s Fish Market, a small building with a big history is demarcated with an oval sign emblazoned with copper shears.
Ever since McDowell was a child, he always enjoyed building things. But that interest became his lifelong passion when, in the late ’60s, he needed some extra money, and started making jewelry. He taught himself to solder silver and make earrings while living in New York. Then, during a vacation weekend in 1971 on the Vineyard, he met a jewelry store manager who needed someone to help repair jewelry that had been brought in by customers.
So McDowell began fixing jewelry, and just two years later, he bought the jewelry store in downtown Edgartown, across from the old Edgartown Hardware location, and moved in with his friend from New York, Gino Powell.
The two friends and silver workers constructed a showroom and had the shop area separated off. They sold silver jewelry for several years before McDowell got into carpentry, and became a contractor.
After banging nails for a few years, McDowell found a discarded piece of copper flashing that someone had left at a jobsite.
He took the raw copper home and fashioned it into a fish to put on his daughter’s very first rocking chair — the rest is history.
Word got out that McDowell had entered into the world of copperworking, and he quickly realized that people wanted his creations, and that it could be a lucrative business.
After putting together a shop in the basement of his new Island home he built on Tea Lane around 1981, McDowell began wholesaling copper fish to local establishments. Then actor and director Robert Redford came out with a catalogue called Sundance that sold clothing, jewelry, and home decor.
“I made a copper trout and, unsolicited, just sent them [the catalogue] one, and ended up selling them well over 1,500 trout,” McDowell said. “I was a one-man band at that point, making 1,500 copper trout.”
He crafted all sorts of different copper pieces, from sperm whales and bluefish to herring and pike, which he sold to catalogues and local houseware stores like Bramhall & Dunn.
“That was many thousands of fish ago,” McDowell said.
Eventually, McDowell began looking for potential shop locations in Menemsha so he could easily run his charter fishing company, North Shore Charters.
“I kept walking by this place that was totally empty, and asked Everett Poole if I could rent it from him for a workspace, to continue wholesaling,” McDowell said.
While working in his new location, folks would regularly knock on his shop door and ask about his work. With the interest growing in his copperwork, McDowell cleared out the entry room, put a wall up, and created a showroom to hang his fish.
The process of making a fish varies depending on the intricacy of the piece and the size of the piece, McDowell said.
To start, McDowell takes a sheet of raw copper and uses a stencil to trace the outline of the fish (usually several at a time). He then carves a hammering mold out of heavy mahogany to give the fish its shape, which he said is a meticulous process that often takes days, because even the smallest divot can create issues when hammering the copper.
The Copperworks has sent pieces to folks from all over the world, although most of its business, McDowell said, comes from the Island. And the business doesn’t advertise, relying entirely on word of mouth, which McDowell said has been incredibly successful.
“We don’t advertise — we don’t need to. And the amount of foot traffic that comes by here in the summer is pretty good,” he said, noting that many of the copper pieces are sold during the busy tourist season.
Currently, Copperworks is stocking up for the summer, crafting as many bluefish, sperm whales, and other marine creations as possible.
Over time, McDowell began hanging some of his favorite antiques and artwork from local artists up alongside his own creations.
In the showroom, the walls are adorned with oxidized fish spears, heavy iron cleats and chocks, and pastel and watercolor paintings that are the quintessence of the Menemsha fishing community.
Annette Cingle, McDowell’s partner, is also heavily involved in the business. She handles the procurement of art and antiques, and decides where to put them in the showroom. Cingle, who also runs her own charter fishing company called Annalee Charters, said there are dozens of art pieces by the likes of Karsen Larsen, Thaw Malin, John Holladay, and many others for sale, hanging in the showroom.
She added that the shop also features four shell artists: Joan LeLacheur, Donald Widdiss, Michael Brady, and Adam Thibodeau, along with silver jewelry made by McDowell and Powell.
Cingle has run galleries before, and said she enjoys being around art and creativity. “It’s inspiring. I’m really learning something new all the time,” Cingle said.
After joining McDowell in his copperworks around eight years ago, Cingle said, she took on the role of art and antiques curator, but she also plays a major part in creating the finished (literally) product of each piece. When McDowell has created the fish, it’s up to Cingle to apply a finish or a patina that gives the piece an aged and unique look.
“I scratch the copper, then apply the green patina with a foam brush, and treat the piece for five or so days, to make sure it adheres,” Cingle said. “I’ll do two or three coats of the green patina, then throw black patina on to create an aged look.”
When making a “brown fish,” without the Statue of Liberty look of the green patina, Cingle said, she applies a black-brown patina to the entire piece, then wipes off some of the coating to give it depth and create a shadow effect. “Each piece comes out so different and unique, and I really love that,” Cingle said.
The two craftspeople are always trying to come up with new maritime-themed designs that people will enjoy, such as a copper basket of eels, or a mechanical sculpture of the Menemsha bell buoy.
“You have to carry on that tradition of swordfishing, whaling, and other nautical history of the Island — you have to keep that history alive,” Cingle said when discussing the many paintings and antiques representing a bygone era.
The Copperworks of M.V. offers locally made copper art, antiques, paintings, and all sorts of odds and ends that represent the fascinating and extensive history of Menemsha and the Island. Visit the-copperworks.com to purchase art, make an inquiry for a custom piece, or learn more. Folks can also visit McDowell’s Instagram page, @copperworks.