The Ships of John Taylor
Travel Roundtable, March 2003
The sea has always sent strange currents through John Taylor's life. This soft-spoken, grey-haired artist was born in Illinois in 1954. He grew up, however, in Darien, Connecticut, near an Atlantic shore steeped in boating and shipping lore.
His father sold marine insurance and, when he was five, the New York Herald Tribune photographed young John listening raptly to tales of the "ghost brig" Mary Celeste. In the vivid dreams that he says have always come to him, Tory prison ships from the late 1700s appear, as do Civil War blockade-runners and World War I destroyers.Six years ago, Taylor did something with his visions. He started to create personal versions of such long-lost vessels.
Weathered wood and metal became his central mediums. But John Taylor's ships are fashioned from a host of components. Look closely and you can find old earrings, computer motherboard, curved wire coat hangers and parts from worn-out children's toys. Taylor sutures them into fanciful boats with a handyman's tools: hammers, garden shears, pliers and a table saw.
Each ship is his vision of an actual craft. But the boats are sculptures, rather than accurate models. They exhibit a freedom from gravity, nautical history and narrative that serves to accentuate their curious, three-dimensional poetry.
Much of their captivating quality derives from Taylor's brand of mimicry. One ship's smokestack may be a length of pipe or hose – but it might as easily be a rare wooden wine-spigot. Rotting ladder steps or pieces of driftwood are split into the mini-planks the artist uses to form each hull. Every ship's stern, usually flying a flag, becomes the meeting-point for separate layers of texture and color.
These acts of transformation are highly personal. For, after forty years of disappointment as an artist, it is his ships that have brought John Taylor fulfillment. Initially, his ambition was to be a novelist; he studied writing at university in North Carolina. The move from North to Deep South had an effect on his sense of the world.
"I was a real Northeasterner, I was raised in a saltbox Colonial house. That part of the South just exposed me to everything I was not. But I always had a love for desiccation, and decay. So although the landscape was a shock, it gave me feelings I loved."
At college, Taylor met his photographer wife Heather. But when it came to post-graduate life as a writer, he was frustrated. "Writers have to have their story, and it was like I couldn't find mine." Instead, Taylor soon turned to learning landscape architecture. When this new discipline required learning to draw, he taught himself with manuals from a local library.
Subsequently, he took up sketching in pastels. It set him planning yet another life – as a visual artist.
A move to Manhattan soon thwarted that ambition. "Of course, we envisioned New York City as the perfect environment. Then I arrived - in the art boom of the middle '80s. All the stuff I saw there seemed just totally disconnected from life. This was in the Jeff Koons era, very ironic and superficial. Finally, I decided, 'If this is all that art can be, count me out. It leaves me cold.' "
In 1989, Taylor decamped to California, settling in the southern coastal town of San Juan Capistrano. "I gave up making anything at all. I just gave myself over to working in landscape and raising a family. It was a little sad, like the time I gave up writing." Four children - a daughter and three boys, two of them twins – brought the Taylors a busy life. Yet John still felt the subtle, restless pull of the ocean.
"Once again, you know, I was living by the sea. The fog would come rolling in around these houses with old rock roofs. All our fences were made out of decomposing redwood and, on the beach, all these crazy things washed up with the tides." He started collecting bits and pieces from the shoreline: driftwood and weathered planks, beaten-up plumbing, used fixtures.
The wood Taylor re-used to create elaborate birdhouses. But even this failed to put a dent in his growing collection. "I had huge piles everywhere; stacks and stacks of junk. Some were recognisable things I had found in the water. Some were things so changed by time and weather no-one would know them."
On a 1996 trip to Santa Barbara, Taylor saw a picture book about a toy boat collection. "It seemed unique because the boats' proportions were really out of whack. Somehow it attracted me; I thought, 'I could make one like that'."
As he started trying to build a boat from his hoard of found items, Taylor says he felt a strange and deep-rooted excitement. "It was like all the feelings I'd ever had in my life - the drawings I'd done, the stories I'd heard, the various places I lived – everything was rising up in one unified stream. All of it suddenly poured into this strange new thing I was making."
Whereas his earlier attempts at art had left Taylor depressed, crafting a fantastical ship delighted and thrilled him. As soon as the first craft was finished, he began another. For five years since, he has never paused - constructing a dreamlike navy, ship by ship by ship.
All the boats Taylor builds are versions of historical vessels. But he decides what will be remembered and what he will forget. These decisions help to create a boat's personality, but they are undertaken with minimal information. "I've never actually ever seen a single ship I've built. I'll just work from a photograph or maybe a postcard. The way I build a ship flows from how I respond to those images."
Taylor loves to reel off the names of vintage vessels- ships like the Lunetta, the City of Rome or the Inland Flyer. But the sensations they arouse, he says, remain enigmatic. "The boats I make are really just vehicles for emotions. Sometimes it's a feeling – a sense of something as 'rough' or 'broken'. Sometimes, it's a fuller vision, say men and women in heavy wool suits'."
The artist focuses on ships "with an American past", but many of those he chooses to create are long forgotten by history. "Most of the ships I build actually had pretty terrible endings. They sank or just wound up as scrap. Lots of times, no-one remembers them."
Taylor has built famous ships such as the Lusitania or the Civil War's Monitor. But he re-envisions them completely. His Lusitania, for example, is made from battered old shutters, a "dead" barbecue grill, bullets and computer circuitry. It is wholly green, a color the artist terms "very American". Leathery in its textures, it emanates a dusty patina - the color of faded dollar bills and long-buried pennies.
Equally quirky is his vision of Noah's Ark. Four feet in length and over fourteen inches tall, Taylor's Ark is a massive, almost fort-like structure. Built from countless tiny chunks of umber-colored wood, the structure's upper half is punctuated by miniscule windows. Viewers who peer closely may glimpse animal silhouettes inside.
Taylor makes all the ships in his California garage, working nights and weekends. (By day he is still a landscape architect, one whose recent work includes forts and nursing facilities.) As his obsession with the ships has grown, it has drawn in his family. Now, they will often donate items for his boats - as will friends.
Usually, Taylor says, their view of what he does is a bit too literal. "But it's hard for anyone else to understand what drives me; it's so wrapped up in my own personal history. Someone might hand me a piece of pipe and say, 'Hey, this is great for a smokestack.' And it might be…but usually I rough it up or use it differently."
Taylor built his ships for a year without showing anyone. Then, playing around on the Internet at work, he ran across the Garde Rail Gallery in Seattle, Washington. This showcase for outsider art was started in 1998, by a married couple, Karen Light and Marcus Piña. When Taylor ran across their modest Web site, Garde Rail was still operating from their apartment home.
The miles between Seattle and California, Taylor says, "made me comfortable". So he began corresponding with Piña by e-mail. "I was kind of wrestling with how my ships would ever fit in. Because I'm not working out of some backwoods shed in the South. I have all my teeth and I'm very lucky - I went to college. But I also have a real dislike for the formal art scene. So I was looking for someone who could understand that."
Garde Rail and Taylor talked and talked, moving from e-mail to telephone. Then, finally, Taylor sent a crate of his ships up to Seattle. Says Marcus Piña, "I loved those pieces right away. I love the fact that all of them are real historical vessels, but they look exactly like they've risen out of the depths." The long introduction paved the way for a lasting relationship.
In the winter of 1999 and during the following summer, Garde Rail showed – and sold – Taylor's ships online. By 2002, the gallery had their own commercial space, whose opening showcased Taylor's ships. Today, they remain the artist's sole representative.
Nevertheless, two years passed before thee three met face to face - at Taylor's third solo show in Seattle. The artist says he the exposure to his patrons was "cheering". But, after two days, he was also ready to leave. "People asked me over and over how could I bear to make the ships? How I could spend so much time on each one and then just send it away? Work so hard on something just to give it up forever."
He smiles. "But I like to see them leave! After all, they're ships. That's what they're supposed to be doing."
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