Last weekend I was preparing my canoe for a summer relaunch after a winter propped in the garage gathering dust and cobwebs. I’m very proud of my wee boat because I made it myself, so I was quite absorbed in touching up scrapes on the hull and adding a few coats of varnish to prolong its useful life. My arm still aches from all the scrubbing, scraping, sanding, rollering and painting, with more to come before the job’s done. But my own efforts are paltry and amateurish compared to the skill and scale of real traditional boatbuilders’ work.
Drawn Lines, new publication from Watters Press
So it’s very timely that I just received my copy of a beautiful publication, “Drawn Lines”, that I’ve watched take form over the last several months. It has recently been launched alongside the historic boat whose complete refurbishment prompted the book as a creative response. ‘Drawn Lines’ is the work of Ullapool-based artist Charlotte Watters. I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Charlotte since last summer as part of a new mentoring scheme run by the Society of Scottish Artists.
‘New frames looking aft.’ Pencil on paper. 295mm x 420mm
Charlotte has been recording, in a sequence of elegant and expressive drawings and paintings, her regular observations of ‘St Vincent’ being unbuilt and rebuilt over a period of over two years since it was hauled up out of the water at the Johnson and Loftus boatyard south of Ullapool. ‘St Vincent’ was originally built in 1910 as a herring drifter and Charlotte describes her own record as a ‘snapshot’ of this venerable boat’s long life.
‘Under St. Vincent, seeing through the hull. Acrylic on canvas. 400mm x 510mm
For Charlotte the activity of drawing has been an opportunity to immerse herself in the sights, sounds and smells of a traditional boatyard, as well as to become intimate with this particular vessel.
‘Under the hull, replacing Garboards’. Pencil on paper. 295mm x 420mm
In her introduction Charlotte writes: “I was drawn to the boat by its scale and dramatic elegance, but through looking, watching, listening and feeling the space I have a deep sense of how she has come to be who she is now, what goes into the making and in this case rebuilding and respecting a beautiful boat. She has transcended times.”
‘At work on the port side below the waterline ,St Vincent undercover’. Acrylic on board. 610mm x 610mm
Charlotte originally trained in sculpture and you can see a sculptor’s sense of three-dimensional form in many of these drawings. In some, the boat’s elegant shape seems towering, sweeping and architectural in scale. In others, unusual viewpoints from inside the half-dismantled hull offer a sense of containment by its massive solidity. Turn that hull upside down and you might be looking at the roof trusses of a medieval hall or an ancient church.
In all of the artworks gathered here you sense this boat as a presence, something almost animate, capable of bringing a community together around it, as historian David Gange suggests in the thoughtful text he has contributed, not merely a boat but ‘a site for the sharing and sustenance of stories.’
St Vincent launch day, Ullapool, May 2023
A boat like this still forms a focus for a coastal community. Charlotte remarked on the surprising size of the cheerful crowd that gathered to see St Vincent slide back into the water. The boat’s relaunch means she will continue to gather new stories around her as she plies the waters of the west coast, hopefully for many, many more years to come.
This ability of a small boat to draw people together is something I witnessed myself on a small scale last weekend, as friends offered to pitch in and help or contribute shed space or missing tools for my own boat refurbishment project, the day’s work sliding easily into an evening of conversations over wine and pizza.
I was delighted to also be invited to be part of the conversation and stories around St Vincent by contributing a short text to Drawn Lines. ‘Boat Hand’ is inspired by my own experience of making my canoe by hand, and my conversations with Charlotte over these last few months.
A boat is a beautiful thing, a wooden boat most of all, the shape of it, honed by water and wind, an answer to the sea’s harsh test, two cupped hands holding tender human lives afloat.
A boat’s all curves; the rounded belly of the hull, the gunwales rising in an upward sweep to meet at the bow, the turn of the bilge, the ‘tumblehome’.
When the sweet curve of a boat’s hull follows a perfectly even path with neither bulge nor indent, it’s known as a ‘fair line’. It’s a line that begs the hand to run along it. The eye can judge it minutely, as fine as any tool can measure. Bend to set your own eye to skim along the gunwale and you’ll see.
It’s a joyous thing, the clean, even curve of a good boat’s hull. It has a rightness to it, like the shape of a seabird’s egg or a seed pod, or a sea-worn beach cobble rolled smooth by the waves of centuries. A boat’s form follows its function so perfectly it seems more like something that’s been grown than made.
And yet it has been made. A wooden boat is shaped plank by plank, skills learned by working alongside, passed hand-to-hand-to-hand.
The hand that makes a boat clasps the past, hauls it aboard the present, and launches it into the future.
A boat is a beautiful thing. Its cargo is hope.
St Vincent under sail again, May 2023
The SSA Mentoring scheme is only available to Society members. However even if you’re not a member, I do have some availability over the next few months for coaching and mentoring. I work with artists and writers 1:1 over a period of months, so I can meet you where you are, really get to know your practice and the issues you’re facing, help you tease out where you’d like to go creatively, and then work out how to get you there.
Here’s what visual artist Andrea Butler said about working with me:
“Working with Sam over the last few months has been one of the best investments I have made in my art practice. I’ve enjoyed the slower pace of e-mail correspondence and it’s enabled a rich and detailed conversation between us. The advice, prompts and resources in Sam’s emails are becoming a valuable record for me to refer to.
Sam is perceptive, knowledgeable, supportive and encouraging and I appreciate her gentle sense of humour and her care. I value the safe, non judgemental space that she creates for me to unravel and resolve issues about my art and over the months that we’ve been working together I’ve begun to develop a clearer understanding of my art practice and of myself as an artist.”