Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Arts and hobbies

Fri, 01/31/2014 - 9:45pm

MATINICUS — We are down to something like 26 residents (and presumably no visitors) on the island at the moment, almost approximating a delightful solitude, with even some of the serious year-rounders away for a few weeks. One fisherman who lives nowhere else, a lifelong resident proud of the many generations here before him, is on a service trip to Belize where in exchange for his labors he will return home with thawed-out knuckles but undoubtedly also with new recipes involving hot peppers. Another native lobsterman, after a couple of months running frantically around this place delivering chowders like a right regular culinary madman and struggling in overspeed all ungodly hours with water pumps and similar confounded machinery, has at last sent himself to warmer climes in hopes, say his exhausted neighbors, that he will take a nap.

Only a small handful of lobster boats are still moored in the harbor as the strong majority of Matinicus fishermen “haul out” for a couple of months, be it for annual maintenance, for significant repairs and improvements, or just so the vessel’s owner doesn’t pace the floors and worry about her all winter in the usual default state of gale.

As regular readers and most anybody else who lives in a heavily-visited part of Maine can attest, it has become something of a stereotype, part of the background noise, for even the most gentle of tourists — and for our own friends and relations in more urban parts — to inquire on an almost daily basis, “What do you people DO all winter?” The expression “you people” still gets on my nerves but that’s my problem. The temptation toward sarcasm is great, because to attempt a serious reply either paints one into a verbal corner or just sounds like whining. “Well, we all sharpen our knives real good this time of year, of course, but you probably knew that, and then there’s Grampa, he’s got that still to keep him busy, and ol’ Melvin, he grows funny mushrooms in his basement, and there’s little Frankie who is still trying to communicate with his home planet. The rest of us build ships in bottles.”

It is easy enough to get annoyed, and I did for many years, as I judged it evident that we changed diapers and read meters and fixed phones and painted buoys and sorted out the bookkeeping and cooked supper in the winter just as we do in the summer. The question is normally asked with a slight air of wariness, as though the idea is just a hair disturbing—either that or too loudly, with an expression of gob-smacked befuddlement over the very idea that anybody labors the entire year on the same dirt where a vacationer spends his cherished fortnight.

I’ve even been told that people in Pittsburgh are asked by visitors, “What is there to do in Pittsburgh?” so it isn’t a Maine island thing.

Having fought that fight enough times, I realize that it’s a wasted effort, and those who exhibit such amazement over a community still functioning here in the winter aren’t really listening anyway. Of course, it remains arguable whether we do actually “function as a community.” We sort of each do our thing, and only occasionally interact, be it over cake or whiskey or storm damage. But for now, let there be no attempting to defend any semblance of occupational normality or talk of barn chores, splitting wood, the 40-hour, the scramble when the telephone rings in urgency, obligations to municipal bureaucracy, or the lives of the freelancers.

Instead, let us brag about art.

If neighbor Sam will forgive me quoting him, he did remark this morning following an observation on the weather that, “I should be out cutting firewood but instead I'm making sawdust in the craftshop.”

Sam has the right idea. He spends much of the harsher season in a comfortable wood shop, building things including a well-engineered version of a popular backyard whirligig. His are usually shaped like a lobster boat, but I have seen a couple of aircraft, and I may ask sometime if he will construct for me a little red Cessna. Here’s to the woodcarvers and the skiff-builders and the others who putter at workbenches. What better labor for anybody this time of year? Any who can resort to arts and hobbies in January is fortunate indeed.

Some on this little island are known to quietly draw portraits, to weave rugs, to make toys, to make tortellini. A friend of mine called around today looking for a particular size of knitting needle, one of hers having snapped. We may have one or two sneaky folks writing poetry in secret, or so I have cause to suspect. Winter islanders are refining barbecue rib rub recipes and trying out new breads, cutting glass, hunting for the ball-peen hammer, puzzling over instructions and sketching out plans for things.

There are brewers and bakers and candlestick makers and one young recreational bartender concocting a blood-red pomegranate liqueur and plenty of Crème de Cacao (as it is well to be ready for the inevitable mud season mudslides). There are people considering carefully which chicks to order, and of course which flowers to plant as the new seed catalogs are arriving here just as everywhere. Knitting moms sit up late to finish hats and mittens for grown children working in distant places with temperatures lower than ours.

One walks through the snow to use a neighbor’s drill press for a minute; another debates the ethics of rock-tumbler sea glass. There is a Seattle Seahawks sweater made for a baby boy going off with the mail and 50 feet of coaxial cable for a ham radio set-up coming out. Lost arts are preserved as bait bags are made the old fashioned way just for the hell of it, and spinning wheels are not so rare here, with four in the winter and five in the warmer months. Item wanted: one iron swage block with spoon forms, and if you know what I’m talking about, good for you.

Photographers are everywhere. Expert cooks are thick on the ground. Everybody’s got a Dremel tool. One islander has an armload of two-by-four coming on the airplane. There is one damned good guitar player and a couple of beginners skulking in the shadows practicing various instruments when nobody’s around. At least one, maybe more, are collecting rope to make those colorful door mats out of used pot warp (lobster trap rope). This town’s only 1st-grade girl is learning how to build little wooden boats and birdhouses. Somebody’s got a new set of pastels for Christmas, and somebody’s messing around with resistors and capacitors ,and somebody’s got new calligraphy pens and is having fun writing Coarse Anglo-Saxon Oaths in Old English lettering.

According to Wendell Berry a good farmer is an artist, and according to me there is more of art than of science in the nurturing of old engines who cannot be allowed to retire. Most of us out here just have hobbies. This is not and has never been an “artist’s colony” with the baggage that entails. Who needs the pressure? We have no critics looking over our shoulders during the summer because then we are busy with the more obvious endeavors. In the winter, as might be obvious, people do not normally burden themselves with easels. For most here, pleasant summer days mean catching lobsters; for the few others, it’s wiring or plumbing or hauling passengers for hire.

In the cold, when nobody is paying attention, we turn to simple pleasures — nothing we learned in Paris to be sure — and play a bit at our workbenches, our sketch pads, our needles and shuttles and steel strings and Kitchenaids. It ain’t a half bad life here in the winter, if you’ve got something to do.

Eva MurrayEva Murray lives on Matinicus


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