Walking into BTG Vergennes on Saturday evening for the opening of the new exhibition “Bridge Wharf Raft,” I felt right at home—reminders of the sea and being on the sea were fastened to Anni’s high white walls all around me—rough-hewn planks of wood weathered to a honey-brown patina and fitted together into a raft; a bunch of oars nesting on wooden supports, with a hoop angling away from them into space; and thickly oiled black and white surfaces reminiscent of tar, seagulls, seaweed, and clouds. All that was missing was a whiff of salt air.
Having grown up in Connecticut on Long Island Sound where I spent many a long Saturday afternoon as crew on my father’s sailboat, I love hulls, decks, masts, ropes, and sails as well as buoys, lobster traps, anchors, and docks. And I love how central the water is to the world of the seacoast, offering its fish, birds, and boats for sustenance, beauty, and wonder.
Paul Bowen obviously loves boats and the sea, too, and the materials those two things engender and then leave behind. While living on Cape Cod for many years, Paul roamed beaches and wharves looking for marine detritus—deteriorating wooden fishing boxes and other washed-up boards and planks—and then let them sift through his imagination until he found a way to fit them together to make new forms, reminding us of the utility of the original material but also its intrinsic texture, color, and shape. We can bring the world of the sea inside, it turns out, and nail it to the wall, forever transporting ourselves out of the mountains and back to the water.
My favorite Paul Bowen piece is probably “Cradle,” the one with the oars piled on carved-out wooden supports. The oar itself is a lovely thing to behold, but here, the artist ignores its beauty; he gathers the oars into a heap as if their day has passed, and then adds a hoop—an anchor, a cloud, a pool, a wave? I like to think that the hoop is the sun’s orbit or the moon’s, so important to the sailor’s orientation in days gone by.
“Rafter” is also a handsome piece—a huge, arrowhead-shaped assembly of weathered pine boards, made from fishing boxes, before plastic came into use. Each box, Paul told me, held 100 pounds of ice and fish. Here they are, fashioned by Paul into a raft with a pole attached, pointed north, or south, or wherever the current takes you.
Paul likes the miniature as well as the giant. If he finds a dried-up piece of potato in a drawer, his mind begins to work, and soon he has stuck together other dried-up pieces of potato, cast them in bronze, and, lo, there’s a tiny black angel about to take flight.
He even paints on the thinnest of woods—Japanese paper made from a wood veneer. Having found these rare Japanese greeting cards in a garage sale, Paul carefully painted on them, leaving the original images on the cards to drift alongside his new ones—Connecticut Bridge, for example, next to Japanese islands. The result is a charming collage and the merger of two worlds on a card.
“Bridge Wharf Raft” is a show you want to touch—all that weather-polished wood—and reminds me not only of the Atlantic—its economy, history, culture, and materials, its sensory world—but how the wreckage of life can be found and made beautiful again.
The show, by the way, fills the Vergennes gallery, and the center gallery in Rochester. See one or both by December 2.