Down-East boat builder Bud McIntosh is dead now. But those white oak frames he installed in 1935 still touch the life of Bruce Sodervick, an artist and sailor living in upstate New York. Sodervick watched a McIntosh-built double-ender slowly decline and die in a weedy boatyard corner near his home. Finally he could stand it no longer. He bought the boat.
It’s natural that the classic wood sailboats of a generation ago should attract Sodervick. He has gained national recognition for his sculptures of frames, stems, keelsons and sheet clamps that pay homage to the spirit of boats; his work has been displayed in New York City galleries, in Paris, Toronto, North Carolina, Nebraska, and Tennessee. Libraries, yacht clubs, private collectors and city parks also harbor his “boat spirits.”
The world of art, he says, is a peculiar business filled with whimsy, occasional hype and vagaries of fashion that are very different from the rigorous discipline of boatbuilding.
“Marine art is grouped into two types: marine wildlife/illustrational painting and historical replicas,” Sodervick explained. “I can’t do models or replica art. It drives me nuts! Why not just make it a little bigger so you can sail it?
“What causes this feeling, this uplift you get from simply looking at a boat? I see people keep an old wood boat in their yard and just let it go down and down and finally rot away. Why do they keep it? I think it has to do with a world of emotion and feeling that comes from boats and water. It’s something that none of the rest of their modern world is about…this spiritual power is certainly something worth creating about.”
Because they’re not replicas, Sodervick’s skeletal representations of boat “bones” confuse some people. And the interpretations of various art critics around the country notwithstanding, they were not meant to represent shipwrecks, death or decay–at least not most of the time. What this artist-sailor wants is for his work to capture the feeling, the spirit of adventure, and the ageless lure of open water as seen over the prow of a staunch little ship.
Boats predated art in Sodervick’s life by many years, and boats remain a wellspring of creativity for him. “I was a farm kid. Our farm would flood every spring, and every spring we’d go down to the river and collect some free boats. My brothers fixed them up and the ones they didn’t use just lay around. I think I was about 5 when I did my first ‘restoration.’ I poured in some tar to seal her up and then took her down to the cornfield and poled around.
“Then,” he said with a smile, “I discovered the sail!” After that, as Sodervick sailed his scow down to the field’s lee end and walked it upwind again, he was hooked for life.
Art came into his life a lot later, with degrees from Indiana and Southern Illinois Universities. Since 1971 Sodervick has been moored to the faculty of Rochester Institute of Technology and has done most of his sailing on one or another of the Great Lakes.
As a hobby he also has revived a veritable fleet of old Lake Ontario woodies including a 28-foot Yugoslavian-built “Viking,” a 33-foot Chris Craft cruiser, an old gaff ketch built in 1910, and most recently the Bud McIntosh-built double-ender.
A number of Sodervick’s earlier works involved the same carpentry skills he employs in the boatbuilding and repair hobby. Bevels, joinery and steam-bent frames made the inspiration for his wood sculptures obvious. But Sodervick has since moved away from such literal attempts to celebrate the feeling of boats.
Recently he has tried to capture the boat spirit in a more abstract fashion using glass. He employs a variety of techniques including casting, blowing and “slumping” (a process whereby a plate of glass is not quite completely melted down into a mold, leaving a few lumps and irregularities). Sometimes Sodervick combines glass with stone, bronze or other material to create what he calls a “totem.”
He places the bronze or copper backbone, knees and ribs atop a column of stone or cast glass full of swirls and bubbles like clear, frozen water because he likes his works suspended, floating, lifted up like a boat afloat. He does not like to see his sculptures displayed lying on the ground like a bit of sea wrack or a pile of beached whale bones. “I’m trying to exalt the spirit…it’s like that lift you get when you first see open water before you.” Or, he adds with a smile, “like that feeling you get when you first see your boat waiting for you at the dock or mooring. It gives you a strengthening of spirit. I’m trying to catch that soul-strengthening image.”
One dramatic Sodervick work is an 18-foot ship sculpture overlooking Lake Ontario on the State University campus at Oswego. “The Gales of November Remembered” consists of four-by-fours bolted together much as you would build up the deadwood of a large wood boat. Sodervick then sheathed the work as an old-time sailing vessel would be covered in copper. Atop the pillar is a stylistic sailing ship.
It’s not coincidence that, as many art critics have pointed out, Sodervick’s boat sculptures often bear a strong resemblance to the skeletal remains of living creatures. “In a boatyard it’s hard not to feel a bent and worn keel in one’s own backbone,” he says. No doubt that kinship with worn structures is particularly keen at the end of a day of boat repair.
Though he doesn’t create replicas, Sodervick does try to make his work authentic, and puts the same effort and care into a sculpture as he does in renewing 29 steam-bent oak frames, replacing a garboard or laying a new deck.
As of this writing, Sodervick has worked for a year and a half on his latest boat restoration. He has completely reribbed her port side, replaced shear clamp and floors, and now is tackling the sadly rotted decks and a multitude of other tasks large and small. He’s aiming for a 1994 launch and a summer of shakedown cruising around Lake Ontario, then a much more ambitious trek to Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Georgian Bay. But the call of salt water is strong. In the end, Sodervick will probably take his old Atkins back “home” to the sea, maybe even back Down East to the place of her birth.