The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory, its kids, and the first Factory One Design featured at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I’m going to give a short talk.
Here’s a draft:
How boats inspire.
It’s fitting that we have this boat and these young people here at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I want to thank everyone who’s made this possible. And, I’d like to talk about how this has brought us full circle.
Not far from this spot you’ll find this painting:
Eakins chronicled many aspects of life in this city in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. This painting shows the kind of boat that was common on the Delaware in the 1870’s. It might be taken for a fishing scene, or two sports heading off to go hunting. I think it shows something else depicted unequivocally in this painting from the year before:
Here we see the face of working class recreation as it was practiced in that time from the mid-Atlantic region up into New England. Factory workers with a modest yet steady income, relishing their Sundays off, gathered into sailing clubs from Baltimore to Boston. On the Delaware their boats were inspired by working craft, Duckers and Tuck-ups. A Ducker in the first painting, Tuck-ups in the second.
Their factories are shuttered now. Jobs gone from their neighborhoods. One old brick industrial building now houses the Wooden Boat Factory, a place where neighborhood kids can meet and tap into traditions all but forgotten elsewhere.
I visited North Philly for the first time when Brett Hart approached me to design a boat for them. Meeting some of the kids and talking with Brett and Victoria I was thrilled at the chance to contribute something to their efforts.
You see, boats inspire. Among my earliest memories, growing up on Cape Cod Bay, are of the fishing fleet in Provincetown, then in its last glories. Of sails upon the horizon, including the schooner Hindu, a boat still sailing today. A craft inspired by three centuries of Grand Banks fishing schooners. Boats for me were not only vehicles for travel or recreation. They transported me in time bringing me into contact with a deep heritage. Providing me with a tangible link to the past that helped me see my own time outside of a narrow perspective at the mercy of a pop-culture obsessed with The Now, racing after a fantasy Future.
Throughout my life boats have been a touchstone. I’ve also learned to recognize them as vessels of transformation. Boats can carry us through profound changes. Their power to inspire can illuminate our deepest yearnings, and our voluntary dedication of time and effort to such an impractical endeavor brings us into contact with something very close to what we seek, when we turn to Art.
These halls are dedicated to the preservation and sharing of objects of Art. We make Art, and seek it out, because it allows us access to all that is missing from our more pragmatic pursuits. Making Art we wrestle with questions of meaning. Spending time immersed in Art we connect with qualities of life missing from many other activities. Art inspires. Art illuminates. Art transports us.
It’s easy to say about an object that strikes our fancy, “Oh! It’s a work of Art!” I think this blurs significant distinctions and masks the very insight that leads us to make this assertion.
A boat is not a work of Art. It is a work of Craft. It is also a craft, in the sense of a vehicle constructed to carry us someplace.
We are creatures of the land. Before aircraft and spacecraft – and in a direct and simple manner neither of these has been able to pull off – boats transport us out of our natural element, supporting us upon an alien medium. Boats carry us where we could not go. Instead of struggling to swim boats float us effortlessly across water’s surface. In a boat we are buoyant. We glide. We slip along harnessing the wind.
Boats can take us over the horizon. They show us the curvature of the earth. Instead of the persistent illusion of solidity and stability we can so easily slip into on land, boats bring us to a responsive realm where everything is in flux. They help us understand and, in no small way, harness the chaos, a dynamism that underlies all existence.
As with the beautiful paintings and sculptures in these halls, boats carry the weight of all this import gracefully. Our immediate sense of them is how they bring us an infectious joy! We smile at the sight of them. We are transported emotionally as we ride them across the river, across the sea. Clearly it’s not a matter of getting somewhere. Afloat, we instinctively grasp that we are here. We have no desire to be anywhere else.
The working class sailors in Eakins’ paintings knew this. Anyone who’s been on a small sailboat cannot help but take from the experience a lifelong impression of how this is so, even if we don’t often put it into words.
What we’re celebrating here is the Wooden Boat Factory, these teachers, these students. These citizens of Philadelphia, bringing this heritage to life again. Providing this city with the prospect of a new fleet of hand-hewn craft sailing this river, carrying its sons and daughters along in a celebration of what it means to embody inspiration in our lives.