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JAMES DODDS Two Coasts, One Perspective

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FTEN IT SEEMS as if for some people all roads lead to the Maine coast. Maybe it’s the draw of the scenery. Perhaps it’s the chance to get to know the natives, or the community of people who, after seeing a lot of the world, chose to settle here. Whatever the reason, many of us find ourselves bewitched by Maine; most can tell the story about when and how it happened. For the English artist James Dodds, becoming conscious of Maine for the first time worked this way: Maynard Bray, the irrepressible wooden boat authority from Brooklin, Maine, was trolling through boatyards in the southeastern region of England. One morning in Maldon he happened upon Cook’s Shipyard, well known for its ongoing work on many of Britain’s remaining Thames barges. That morning the Cook’s crew had a sailing smack grounded out on the hard and was hoisting a freshly adzed stem section into place. Both the scale of the project and the precision of the work reminded Bray of things back home in Maine, where he had participated in rebuilding the Hudson River sloop Clearwater at Billings Shipyard in Stonington

Douglas Atfield

When English marine artist James Dodds came to Maine, he brought a fresh eye to bear on a coast that is so different from his native shore yet in many respects is so similar.

At left: Smack’s Counter, 38 x 38", 2006. Courtesy Dowling Walsh Gallery, Rockland.

BY BILL MAYHER

James Dodds at work in his studio in Wivenhoe, Essex, England. www.maineboats.com

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time in Dodds’s life, a quick sketch of Maine’s maritime possibilities by a total stranger helped give him more focus and confidence in his abilities. Right off he pushed through the paperwork necessary to register his apprenticeship. Then, when his four-year term was up, he took an even more dramatic step: seeking to artistically expand upon his shipyard experiences, he enrolled in art college full time. Since that fateful decision he has emerged as one of England’s most compelling maritime artists.

and more recently started in at the Newbert & Wallace yard in Thomaston building a brand-new nineteenth-century schooner, the John F. Leavitt. Both were large sawn-frame projects that called for a dozen or more traditional shipwrights, who at that time in Maine, were in worryingly short supply. In conversation with the Cook’s boatbuilders, Bray suggested that if any of them were interested in a transAtlantic sojourn, they could find shipwright work in Maine. Once back from his travels, he didn’t give the matter further thought, but evidently his words lit a fire under James Dodds, the youngest member of the Cook’s crew. Dogged by a complex set of learning difficulties that had made school an agony for him, Dodds had dropped out at age 15 to take a bottom-rung shipyard job at Cook’s. Typical of most teenagers, 44

however, a radical move of this magnitude didn’t exactly constitute a life plan. Until that point, in fact, Dodds hadn’t even bothered to file the paperwork necessary to make his four-year ship-

JAMES DODDS’S WORK, ever grounded in his shipwright’s apprenticeship, brings stunning authenticity with every stroke of his brush. As for Maine, it took over three decades for him to finally travel here. Once again a stranger from Brooklin was a catalyst; this time the stranger was me. Off on a two-year working stint in England, I accidently ran across Dodds’s work in the window of a London gallery. When I went inside to explore further, what I saw were paintings of vessels under construction, paintings of workboats hauled up on beaches, paintings of ancient sailing craft brought back to life. The meticulousness of his rendering, his thoughtful layering on of texture, and most of all, his sure-handedness as a painter—a skill enabling him to apply pigments that managed to appear both muted and vivid simultaneously—these things produced in me that strongest of emotions—they made me homesick for the Maine coast.

AS ONE MIGHT WELL EXPECT

from looking at his work, Dodds has an eye for critical details.

yard apprenticeship official. But suddenly, after Bray’s words of encouragement, shipyard work seemed less like a school avoidance strategy and more like a career with international possibilities. It hardly matters that Dodds didn’t actually up stakes and move to Maine. What does matter is that at a critical

Not long afterward, Dodds and I became friends. The following summer he and his family visited me and my mine in Brooklin. As one might well expect from looking at his work, Dodds has an eye for critical details. While some of us stumble through our days hardly dis-

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Oils courtesy Dowling Walsh Gallery, Rockland. Linocut courtesy the artist.

tinguishing one thing from another, his American diary notes draw interesting distinctions between England and Maine, especially in the boatyards we visited. A few excerpts make the point: “The tidy, well-organized yards with their Herreshoff production line methods of building upside down and the ingenious building jigs used in peapod construction....I had never seen so many purpose-made jackstands in one place as in the yards we visited. (In truth I had to ask what they were when I saw a load of them beside one shed.) At home we would have been sawing up 2x4s and hammering wedges for each boat….The yards I worked in back home are more like living museums with bits of boat name boards, etc. that no one could throw away.” Looking over the ocean as a first-time visitor to Maine, Dodds wrote: “The sharp contrast of the enveloping vertical line of the trees punctuated by boulder and rock makes me think of the vertical pictorial space of the Japanese print. Contrasted with this is the strong horizontal of a vast sea peppered by wooded islands stepping back to the horizon in

Dodds got the idea to add color to his linocuts (Rockport Marine is depicted above) after viewing work by Maine’s own Carol Thayer Berry. At left: Peapod Under Construction (2008). Below: Gig.

a very pleasing way. Everything seems either very close or very far away, there seems to be less middle distance.” When Dodds met a fisherman or sailor in Maine, one couldn’t help noticing the easy rapport between them, a rapport built on an unspoken mutual respect.

Along the estuaries of his home county of Essex, where James Dodds learned to sail, the principal elements of maritime life are mud and the comingsand-goings of the tide. This sticky, sucking mud can be risky, even lethal stuff. If, for example, a walker slogging across a mud flat is unlucky enough to fall face-

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The two-colored linocut Brooklin Boat Yard (2009) reflects three eras simultaneously: the present of Bob Stephens, the recent past of Joel White, and the distant past of Nathanael Herreshoff.

sequences, that taking command of a small vessel is inherently a high-stakes endeavor. By the same token, those who master the local elements at a young age on either coast build a core strength that is palpable. Throughout Dodds’s visit to Maine our conversations often turned toward how the eccentricities and vagaries of coastal Maine compared to his hometown of Wivenhoe in Essex and environs. Both regions, it seems, feature a yeasty blend of artists, writers, shipwrights, and

Douglas Atfield

forward, he probably won’t be able to gain sufficient purchase with his arms and legs to push himself free. Accidently grounding out on the “saltings” (salt marshes) miles from home, therefore, can be more than an inconvenience; if one acts foolishly, it can quickly become a life-and-death situation. In Maine, danger most often comes in the form of rocks and ledges as opposed to mud, but both regions share hazards that are real enough to teach kids that careless actions have direct con-

Dodds’s studio is filled with maritime reference books, as well as deadeyes, shackles, carved sea birds, and other seagoing flotsam and jetsam.

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other less easily defined local characters. When Germaine Greer wrote of Essex as “the least gentrified, most countrified, and most idiosyncratic county in Britain,” she might have been describing broad swaths of the state of Maine. All these elements combined to make Dodds feel easily at home here. Additionally, he was struck by the number of accessible wooden boats, the many conversations connecting the region’s history with its maritime and architectural design imperatives, and always the seashore’s wild edge. Sketching, taking photographs, talking to boatbuilders, he soon concluded that he should commit to a series of linocuts of the boatyards we were visiting. Such a project would be no new thing for Dodds. Over many years back in England he has created a series of masterly linocuts featuring the coastal landscapes of Essex. These works, noteworthy for their strong linear sense, for their resolution of geometrical complexities into a powerful whole, and for the striking narrative power he has achieved by combining contemporary and historical views into the same ingenious panorama, have become a breadand-butter crop for the artist. When you look at one of the boatyard prints reproduced here, try to conjure up the image of Dodds deep at work in his Wivenhoe studio that is attached to his house. Big canvases of his oil paintings of boats provide the visitor (and one assumes the artist himself) with a series of inspirations. On virtually every horizontal surface are stacks of maritime reference books, as well as deadeyes, shackles, carved sea birds, and other seagoing flotsam and jetsam. An oilstove stands at the ready if tea is called for. And always Radio Four, the BBC’s legendary intellectual treasure, is tuned to some compelling conversation or other that keeps the artist engaged and fascinated with a surprisingly broad gamut of current topics. The linocuts of the size and complexity Dodds regularly produces are not for the casual artist. Each one involves several months of painstaking work. First, Dodds draws out the scene in a mirror image of the actual. Then he carefully carves away the linoleum

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Linocuts courtesy the artist(2)

Around the Islands in Search of a Good Story. Uncolored linocut (2009).

Several years ago in an interview, Dodds said, “The feeling of belonging to a place, being part of the rhythm of the tide and the sea—this and the spiritual contemplation of making things, is what really matters. It is something you can’t own but which is part of you. This is the sense of enduring value I try to put in my work.” After seeing the paintings and prints shown here and at the Dowling Walsh Gallery, no one can doubt that he has earned the right to belong to this place as well as to his native England. Courtesy Dowling Walsh Gallery, Rockland.

to create the negative (white) spaces. To build the image he has drawn out on the block, Dodds naturally combines sketches and photos taken on the scene, several of them derived from Benjamin Mendlowitz’s iconic Calendar of Wooden Boats. Beyond the visual material, Dodds’s research often includes conversations with yard workers themselves, so he is able to include significant images from the yards’ histories. The Bridges Point Boatyard print, for example, shows Wade Dow’s father’s lobsterboat, the Tranquil C, in the foreground and a Wade Dow-built Bridges Point 24 on a cradle in the background. The Brooklin Boat Yard print reflects three eras simultaneously: the present era of Bob Stephens, the recent past of Joel White, and the distant past of Nathanael Herreshoff: Bequia, the 92foot-long Bob Stephens cold-molded yawl commands the center; High Times, the Joel White-designed and -built plankon-frame picnic boat is on the ways to the right; while the late Joel White himself sails his beloved Herreshoff-designed Shadow in the waters to the left. In the Rockport Marine print, Adventure, a historic replica of an eighteenthcentury colonial trading vessel built there for the Charlestowne River Landing, shows in the doorway, then there is Primrose, owned by Tom Kiley, a valued member of the yard crew. Soon after Dodds arrived in Maine, he was introduced to the work of Carroll Thayer Berry, a Rockport artist who worked in linocut between 1945 and 1978. As it turns out, both mens’ seascapes already shared many motifs in the way such elements as sea and sky are rendered. Beyond this, Dodds was struck by the power Berry achieved by adding a second color to his linocuts. In three of Dodds’s Maine boatyard prints, color has been added. Although Dodds’s first visit lasted only two weeks, his natural affinity for the Maine coast has taken deep root. When he returned to England in the fall of 2008 he painted more than a half dozen large oils featuring Maine-built boats. This summer he will return again to Maine to continue his work, and his trip will culminate in a large show of his newest paintings at Rockland’s Dowling Walsh Gallery in August 2010.

Bill Mayher is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklin, Maine. FOR MORE INFORMATION Dodds’s work will be on exhibit August 6-28, 2010, at Dowling Walsh Gallery, 357 Main St., Rockland, ME. 207-596-0084; www.dowlingwalsh.com. He is represented internationally by Messum’s of London: www.messums.com.

MAINE BOATS, HOMES & HARBORS SHOW Exhibitor

. August 13 – 15, 2010

In Praise of a Handy Local Boat.

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JAMES DODDS: Two Coasts, One Perspective, an article from MBH&H Issue 111  

When English marine artist James Dodds came to Maine, he brought a fresh eye to bear on a coast that is so different from his native shore y...

JAMES DODDS: Two Coasts, One Perspective, an article from MBH&H Issue 111  

When English marine artist James Dodds came to Maine, he brought a fresh eye to bear on a coast that is so different from his native shore y...

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