Of all of the historical figures who made their mark on Martha’s Vineyard, Manuel Swartz Roberts may very well be the most interesting (of course, the Chicken Lady of West Tisbury should perhaps be the rightful owner of that distinction). Swartz, whose boatbuilding workshop was located directly across from the Chappy Ferry landing in Edgartown, was equally well-known as the builder of wooden boats and as a friend and supporter of local artists, many of them whose world renown has survived their passing.
During the years of his operation of the boatbuilding business (1904–54), Swartz built more than 200 catboats, while also hosting artists he welcomed into his shop to use as studio space. He also welcomed any other locals who might be in need of a sympathetic ear at his workshop. When he retired, Swartz sold the odd-shaped building to his artist friends, allowing the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association an official home. Renamed the Old Sculpin Gallery after Swartz’ nickname, the space, which houses a gallery, studios, and classrooms, has been in operation ever since.
To honor the gallery’s roots and its namesake benefactor, three years ago the MVAA began hosting an annual event called Catboats! — An Old Sculpin Celebration, and the weekend-long lineup of festivities has grown ever since.
This year Catboat Weekend will coincide with the Edgartown Yacht Club’s annual regatta, and along with an exciting roster that will include races and boat parades, the weekend event will also include a breakfast with the captains, a talk by Island seaman and historian Matthew Stackpole, a display of artifacts, and of course, an art exhibit, appropriately titled “Wind and Water.”
As well as themed works by current members of the association, the exhibit will include paintings by some of the group’s founding members. While many of the works of art in the exhibit depict other boats, ocean scenes, and windy landscapes, there are a few that best define the inspiration of the event, including a painting by founding member Ruth Appeldoorn Mead, who captured one of Swartz’s crafted catboats — the last one that the “Old Sculpin” built before he switched to making tables and duck decoys when his arthritis would not allow for lathing work.
“He was a great artist and artisan,” says June Schoppe, chair of the Catboat event. “He would just look at a piece of wood and know what he was going to do with it.”
Schoppe adds, “Beyond having this tremendous skill with wood, he had a great following. People would hang out at his shop all the time. He was sort of a Dear Abby of the harborfront. He could weigh in on everything from marital advice to how to build a toy.”
In case you’re not nautically inclined, a catboat is a sailboat with a single sail on a single mast set well forward in the bow. Think of Winslow Homer’s famous painting of a catboat under sail “Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)” to get an idea of the unique design of the simple wooden craft.
Participating in the Catboat parade and race will be examples of both wooden boats — some vintage — and newer fiberglass versions. Among the historic boats on hand will be Catboat Tigress, built in 1927, and “Old Sculpin,” built in 1912 and extensively renovated by Gannon and Benjamin last year.
Catboat Coffee Co. will provide coffee for a Friday breakfast with the catboat captains, and is also co-sponsoring trolley service from the Park and Ride to Memorial Wharf. Of course, the coffee company family also owns a catboat; Crepidula will be under sail for the event as well.
Other sponsors include Catboat Charters, Rockland Trust, and Mad Martha’s.
Event schedule: Saturday, July 15, 10 am: “Catboats, Captains & Coffee,” Old Sculpin Gallery. Public invited. 12 pm: Parade of Sail. Manuel Swartz Roberts Cup Race. Edgartown Harbor, Memorial Wharf. Park at the Edgartown Triangle and ride the free Catboat Trolley to Memorial Wharf, operating between 10 am and noon. Sunday, July 16, 5 to 7 pm: Public reception for “Wind and Water Exhibit.” Old Sculpin Gallery. Guest speaker Matthew Stackpole: “Stories from an Island Seaman.” July 15 through 21, 10 to 7 pm: Old Sculpin Gallery Exhibit with member art, memorabilia, vintage photos, and oral histories.