Wood boats brought to life

‘The Perfect Craft: Wooden Boat Building, Then and Now’ at the M.V. Museum.


As a born-and-bred Manhattanite, boats were not part of my life. Moving here full-time, it seemed, much to my surprise, that everyone around me talked about boats an awful lot. After writing an article for this paper about Featherstone Center for the Art’s 2018 “The Art of Boat Building,” and also about Gannon & Benjamin in 2020, where I got to see their craft up-close, I was completely taken with the supreme artistry of wooden boatbuilding, which is exactly what the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s new, immersive exhibition is all about. “The Perfect Craft: Wooden Boat Building, Then and Now” is chock full of captivating art, elegant models, engaging historic images, fascinating oral histories, and full-size boats that bring to life the ways in which Island boatbuilders have, for centuries, worked their magic to create vessels of beauty and function.

Look out on the water from just about anywhere on the Vineyard, and you’re likely to spot crafts made of wood, whose ancestry goes back for thousands of years. These boats have and continue to help bring in food, haul cargo, connect the Island to the wider world, and introduce generations of summer visitors and residents alike to the joy of being out on the water.

This show breaks new ground, extending over much of the museum’s campus. Start in the Linnemann Pavilion, where you are immediately greeted by a Wampanoag mishoon, a large dugout canoe impressively fashioned with fire from a single enormous log by Jonathan James-Perry, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and members of his family using exclusively 17th century methods.

There are then a series of sections that break down, step by step, the process of boatbuilding. Each contains authentic historic tools and related objects, along with Alison Shaw’s exquisite photographs and Andrew Moore’s finely rendered oil paintings to convey the intricacies of the sequence of events. In “Design and Layout,” we learn, among other things, that every design is tailored to the vessel’s purpose, but influenced by the builder’s experience in sailing similar ones, building them, and studying those constructed by others. There are wonderful half-hull wooden models, which boatbuilders traditionally used to refine their designs, and examples of paper lines drawings that are more commonly used now. (Peek into the Morgan Learning Center to see those made by students in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Marine Studies class, and read their quotes about what they learned from the project.)

We follow the actual construction, starting with the initial element to be placed with a plank-on frame boat — the keel, the wooden backbone to which all the other parts will ultimately be connected. Once the framing components are in place, the planking begins, and the seams are sealed in a caulking process. Then we’re on to turning the boat upright, adding the interior elements, and finally, getting it in the water, which is illustrated here with historic photographs of the launching in Edgartown of the Old Sculpin, the last catboat built by Manuel Swartz Roberts (1918–63).

Bringing it all to life are the captivating voices of the boatbuilders, assembled by the museum’s oral history curator, Linsey Lee. There is Erford Burt (1898–1994) speaking about his craft, current builders Carlo D’Antonio and Nat Benjamin sharing their perspectives on wooden boatbuilding, and Sally Saniuta offering memories of her stepfather, Manuel Swartz Roberts.

Next, wander out to Doherty Hall to discover more about the builders, with examples of Roberts’ and Burt’s tools of the trade, as well as examples of some of the boats you’ve been learning about. The show’s star is outside the hall before you get to the Rose Styron Garden — Robert’s 1929 catboat Vanity, which usually sails every summer, but has been brought here for our viewing pleasure for the exhibition.

Having learned in-depth about and then perusing real-life specimens, I have grasped Benjamin’s poignant comments in one of his oral histories. He sees wooden vessels as sentient beings: “A boat has this individuality that you don’t get in something that comes out of a barrel … It’s just different. And some people say it has a soul, whatever you want to call it. It has its own life, it has its own destiny, and we are sort of the temporary caretakers, and we try to keep them alive and keep them going, and bring people enjoyment.”

“The Perfect Craft: Wooden Boat Building, Then and Now” is on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through Oct. 15.