Natural beauty

Frank Rapoza fashions raw materials into intricate and interesting works of art.

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While a number of Islanders have taken to fashioning jewelry from colorful quahog shells, Frank Rapoza of West Tisbury has taken the art form to a different level by using the unique purple-and-white raw material to create wonderful mixed-media mosaic images that often reflect a life spent near the sea.

Through a painstaking process, Rapoza flattens, carves, and polishes the shells to make tiles that he combines with other natural materials and works into intricate designs. The clamshell pieces are sometimes used to create a recognizable image, as in a seascape titled “Lucy Vincent Beach” and another called “Ocean Sunrise.” However, more often, the tiles are fashioned into a decorative framing area, surrounding an image made from other nature-sourced materials.

Rapoza tends to favor geometric designs — frames within frames, symmetrical crosses, stars, and arrow shapes. These images are found in many of the artist’s designs, giving them an almost historical, nautical vibe with a very contemporary sensibility.

The other materials that Rapoza works with include swordfish bills, crushed glass, or quahog shells (a material he calls “wampum-ite”), jingle shells (the small translucent shells sometimes called mermaid toenails) and, most interesting of all, ebony salvaged from the schooner Dolphin, which was shipwrecked on the south side of Cuttyhunk in 1854 while carrying a cargo of ebony logs from Santo Domingo. Rapoza gathered a number of these logs by purchasing them from people who found them washed up on the shore, or by commissioning dives at the shipwreck site. He notes that the dark black Gaboon Ebony — one of the densest, most prized types of ebony — doesn’t float, so much of it is still underwater.

Rapoza grinds up clamshells and sheets of various colors of stained glass to build up certain scenes, or to create backdrops for some of his images. The variety of processes that he uses have evolved over time through experimentation. Cutting and shaping the quahog shells requires multiple steps, and is very time-consuming.

Although he has no training in art, Rapoza is no stranger to exacting, meticulous craftsmanship, having spent decades working as a shipwright and, later, as a finish carpenter for Holmes Hole Builders. Beginning as an apprentice shipwright, the South Shore native went on to work in Mystic, Conn., and then on to Martha’s Vineyard, working on the restoration of numerous vessels including the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan and the construction of the modern-day version of the Amistad.

Once he relocated to the Island, Rapoza, a longtime professional sailor and commercial fisherman, started spending the summer months living on his own boat, moored at the small island of Cuttyhunk. There he discovered the work of Manny Sarmento, whose intricate clamshell mosaics hang at the Cuttyhunk United Methodist Church. Rapoza started experimenting with wampum, purchasing stained glass–making tools and repurposing others from his studio to perfect his techniques. He uses, variously, a diamond band saw, a lapidary wheel, and a ring saw. Along with the ebony and quahog shells, he has also gathered numerous swordfish bills from New Bedford fishermen.

Once Rapoza retired, he started focusing his attention on his artwork. Along with the wampum pieces, he has transformed a number of swordfish bills into attractive works of art — embellished with inlaid shells, crushed glass, and other materials, and finished with ebony bands. “Traditionally, sword fishermen would take the bill and carve a handle onto it,” says Rapoza. “I got the idea from that practice, and decided to use the bills to make a sort of folk art.”

More recently, Rapoza has taken to carving wall-mounted fish, like bluefin tuna and swordfish, which he paints and, in the case of the swordfish, adds a clamshell or ebony eye and an actual portion of a swordfish bill. Examples of all of the artist’s work can be found at the Granary Gallery, where he started showing his work about four years ago. You can also find more of his collages and carvings on Facebook at bit.ly/rapozaart.

Although he has no formal training as an artist, Rapoza notes that his father Francisco was a painter, specializing in maritime scenes. “My father is listed in ‘Who’s Who,’” he says. “He had a studio in our house. I spent a lot of time there.”

Clearly that influence has paid off years later. And chances are, Rapoza will continue to experiment with new media and materials, always with a nod to a lifetime working around the sea and on boats.