Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Painting Marvel

I painted Marvel twice, once on a mushroom and again in Manhattan and every year during the spring haul out. Fishing boats that over wintered down south had a good shot at a yacht grade paint job, one with glossy marine enamel. I only did that once and switched over to the Alaskan method, Olympic Stain. I have seen it snow in May in Sitka. The chances of getting a good paint job in Southeast were close to 0. Olympic Stain could be painted on in any weather. Bleeding fasteners and long dripping rust streaks always identified a boat as an Alaskan boat.

Vessels stuck with their color schemes. The Donna Mae was old school white with black trim, I could spot that boat anywhere on the horizon. The Helen A had white trim against a dark green hull. The Emma C was white with red trim and a red mortgage strip. Tradition held that when the boat was paid off, the mortgage stripe, or strip of paint between the guard rail and the railing could be painted out. People that had them, liked them, and left them to be a permanent part of the boat.

Marvel's paint scheme was a little outside the norm, ivory hull, midnight blue trim, like the state flag. The accent color was raspberry sherbert, the pinkish color was definitely outside the norm. 2 bronze stars were on either side of the bow and the obligatory foot high fish and game numbers were along side both sides of the wheelhouse. The spring paint job was a time to look things over carefully, make repairs, and spiff everything up. I dutifully hauled out every year, re-zinced and bottom painting, taking several years off my life with toxic paint fumes. No toredo worms, which are actually clams, grew on the hull. Generations ago, the Seattle fleet smartly choose to over winter at Fisherman's terminal, inside the Ballard locks where the fresh water was inhospitable to any worms thinking about taking up residence.

Along with the annual bottom paint, I changed out the zincs. AnB harbor was an electrical hot spot, with power cords drug all through the water, like having a battery charger on all the time, constantly sending voltage into the water. The zincs were there to dissolve first. After the zincs were used up, electrolysis would work quickly to eat away any unprotected steel, like fasteners, bow irons, or keel bolts. Invisible forces were always at work trying to destroy my boat in one way or another.

A huge deck beam ran under the wheelhouse crossing the hull at the widest part. I discovered a small section of rot and chiseled it out. Gluing in a fresh piece of wood was as effective as a band-aid on a cancer tumor. That rotten spot bothered me. Only one word could describe the proper fix: expensive. I monitored that spot and felt lucky not to go down that particular repair road before I sold the Marvel. Now I have another section of wood rot I monitor. Behind the cabin door of my old family cabin, in the same kind of inconvenient spot is a section of rotten wood I have been watching for 20 years. Each year I note that the spot has slightly grown. What started as blistered paint, the size of a bottle cap, grew into an egg and is now larger than a bratwurst. I bring this up from time to time, how the spot is growing, but no one seems to take me or it very seriously. I can't help but worry that rotten spot might sink the cabin.

One summer day, when it was probably 80 degrees in Washington, I was stormed in Elfin Cove. A lot of shore side adventures were done in pouring rain, as our downtime was only during bad weather. It didn't matter too much, since I had the right rain gear. Getting off the water and into the woods was a sensory treat. At a beach fire, most people sat so they could see out to the water, fishermen sat so they could see the trees.

I learned that it was possible to carve into a tree fungus, let it dry and the image would stay. Back in the spruce forest behind the tiny village of Elfin Cove, I found a small fungus. Elfin Cove had 2 harbors, the inner and outer harbor, a plank board walk connected the two. I was tied up in the outer harbor facing the Brady Glacier. Marvel's classic lines looked best from the stern. I stood at the top of the dock, with an awl, and drew into the fungus, the shape of the hull, the guard rail, the stern post, the cockpit with it's high combing, the hatch on the fish hold, anchor gear all coiled next to the capstan, the open door of the wheelhouse, the mast, trolling poles, boom, rigging, front railing, anchor in place, and the little round window on the back of the cabin, near the rotten spot. I neatly lettered :MARVEL ELFIN COVE 1987 around the edge of the small fungus. It was like scrimshaw, or painting with sumi ink, no going back, put down a line, a line so familiar that it was easy. It's always easy to draw something loved.

New York City, 25 years later, about as far away from Elfin Cove and the Alaskan fishing grounds as imaginable. A groundswell runs through the Arts Student League, a current of electric creativity. Someone will have an idea, another artist will pick up on it, and make it their own. At it's best, the Arts Student League is alive with an exchange of ideas from creative minds and aesthetics from around the world. Brian, a county Cork Irishman, and road manager for Radiohead, painted by the door of the morning abstract painting group I attended. He set the pace. If he was painting yellow, pretty soon, someone unconsciously reached for their tube of yellow. By the end of the morning, yellow had made an appearance on various canvases through the studio. At the Arts Student League, people liked to glue things onto their canvases before starting. I didn't have access to my supplies of vintage and antique junk, but I did have an excess of canvas strips cut off of large stretchers. They were frayed and of varying widths, not good for anything, perfect for gluing onto my canvas.

The canvas was heavy gauge sailcloth, serious work canvas. The feel of the cloth awakened a memory, a spring project, fixing a leak in the wheelhouse, the same heavy gauge canvas I used for taking care of my boat. And so I started a fresh 24” square, with strips of canvas glued on, in New York City, in that place, where the highest achievement was to tap into the river of creativity. I painted lines and curves, and painted over those and squeezed out colors I loved: manganese blue, Prussian blue, red oxide, a deep red hovering between copper and burgundy, white,and black. I dove into the river. And when I came up for air, an image of the Marvel started to emerge, the angle of the trolling poles, the sweep of the rail, the belly of the hull, the small round wheelhouse, port and starboard running lights, the sunlight on the water, the way Marvel rode up and over ocean swells. It was a portrait of my boat, done with all the courage and fearlessness it had taught me.

I came back to San Juan Island with that canvas and many others tucked in a roll. It was May, time to get ready for an island season. My old fishing friend George stopped by before heading up to Sitka.

“Did you hear the news?”

“No, what happened?”

“The Marvel sank, down near Port Alexander, they couldn't raise her.”

“Wow, When did it happen?”

“Just last month when you were back East. I'm sorry for the news”

How could the spirit of the Marvel come through my fingertips and out onto canvas? How could the spirit emerge as the boat was sinking?, it's life on the water extinguished? How was it that this boat was more than pieces of wood, a bow stem and a keel? Experience and my stories made Marvel alive. It took 25 years to forget about the work, the smell of the bottom paint and the sound of the jimmy diesel, and to remember what was good, and how interlocked the boat and I were.

I took Marvel to the fishing grounds of Alaska and Marvel took me to places few people experience, From Cape Ommaney to Lituya Bay, I had the best vantage point, the back deck of a salmon troller. The Marvel and I , we had a good run together.