The workshop that is the Old Sculpin Gallery today has attracted and inspired artistry for decades, first as the workshop of the gifted boatbuilder Manuel Swartz Roberts (1881-1963) and today as a workshop, training, and display space for Martha’s Vineyard artists, young and old.
Roberts’ craftsmanship, his wise and earnest hospitality, and his fine sense of what was beautiful and useful in the fishing catboats he designed, modeled, and built stirred an aesthetic impulse among his daily visitors and made a starting place for their own artwork.
Bailey Norton, whose waterfront boathouse is across the street, describes in his memoir My Long Journey Home, the scene in Roberts’ shop:
“Whether morning or afternoon, upwards of half-a-dozen local men and visitors could be found at Manuel‘s engaged in lively discussions on virtually any topic. While these friendly debates were going on, Manuel toiled in the background single-handedly building a catboat while everyone in the shop would whittle away at a piece of pine scrap picked up off the floor.”
From 1904 to 1954, Roberts, nicknamed Old Sculpin after a fish common in groundfish catches, built catboats and other small craft. He also maintained the schooners and sloops that fished seasonally from Edgartown for flounder, halibut, and cod, and for swordfish in summer. His catboats, handy, shoal, and capacious, were designed with shellfishermen who worked the island ponds in mind. One of Roberts’ cats, the Edwina B, sits at the dock behind the Norton Boat House. What is now Memorial Wharf and nearby docks and buildings such as the boat house, were the home bases for the Vineyard fleet. Now a recreational harbor, Edgartown was in Roberts’ day a busy, working waterfront serving fishermen from across the island.
Perhaps there was a karmic affinity between the the boat shop and the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association, begun informally in 1934 by Ruth Appledorn Mead in a shack on the harbor across Dock Street. Roberts’ built his artfully conceived and executed cats on one side of the road, while the Art Association’s members toiled at their easels on the other, and when the boatbuilder retired, the artists moved into the shop. Today, the Old Sculpin Gallery does for painters and sculptors what Roberts did for the daily audience that watched him work. As it was then it is now, not only a place to find inspiration but a place to learn, to work, and ultimately to present the results to others for their judgments.
What’s now the Old Sculpin Gallery has had many lives – a sail loft, a flour mill, a whale oil factory, and a grain warehouse. Roberts’ boat shop succeeded the warehouse, and the gallery succeeded and extended Roberts’ link to the life of the town’s busy commercial waterfront.
The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which has owned the building since 2005 and restored it for use by the gallery, has memorialized this inventive space that Manuel Swartz Roberts created a hundred years ago.
This is adapted from a sketch I wrote for the Old Sculpin Gallery, as part of its August 2 celebration, called On the Waterfront, The gallery and the Vineyard Trust (formerly the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust), which owns the gallery building on Dock Street in Edgartown, jointly hosted the event.