The Conventional Wisdom

by Michael Waugh


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On last day of January in 1827, my great-great-great-great grandfather, Gideon Dexter was killed. He was working in a shipyard, and, in the face of a winter storm, he jumped in a small rowboat to go out into the town’s harbor and secure another small rowboat that belonged to a merchant. Blown by the storm out into the open water of Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, Gideon rowed powerfully against the wind trying to get home -- until the oars splintered.

His frozen body was found the next morning about twenty-five miles away. The project for which I am seeking funding is to make a sculpture in memory of Gideon and his final labor. The sculpture will take the form of a rowboat -- not a replica of Gideon’s boat -- but a wooden boat sealed in fiberglass and using every design innovation possible. This will be a boat that could have actually gotten him home.

The boat will also be beautiful, made entirely out of marine-grade Ohakune plywood. And I will cover the entire interior of the boat with words. I have been making art out of tiny, handwritten text for years, mainly as works on paper. But last year, I made my first such work on wood, as sculpture. I made a set of hand-carved oars, the looms of which were covered with text concerning economics. I will apply the skills I learned in making those oars in making this boat.

When I showed the oars as part of a solo show in New York this past January, I also showed a video. The video included documentary footage of me making the oars, inscribing them with text, and then attempting to use them on the water. Without proper training and in the wrong-sized boat, I soon capsized. The video added context and depth to the oars as sculpture.

I plan to document the process of making this boat (just as I documented the oar-making). And I plan to undertake several performances in the boat as well -- including one in which I push off from the shipyard where Gideon used to work and drift for eight hours. I also plan to take the boat to the spot where Gideon’s body was found and to row back to his (and my family’s) hometown.

This boat will be the basis for a substantial body of work. But none of it can happen until the sculpture is made. Supporting the creation of this sculpture will, in a very concrete way, lay the foundation for the next cycle of my development as an artist.

In order to make this sculpture, I need to raise at least $8,000. This money will be used to build the boat (including materials, wood-burning pens, studio rent, shipping costs, and professional fees) as well as pay for equipment and editing upgrades necessary so that I can adequately document this project. My previous projects have relied heavily on in-kind donations of time, studio-space, and equipment. And my current budget continues to rely on these donations. However, if my funding goal is exceeded, I will use these monies to pay for crew, professional documentation, and the fees associated with renting a safety boat when I take this project onto the water.

This boat, as a sculpture, will be a physical manifestation of Gideon’s story and its connection to me. But this project is also a living story. The sculpture will do more than occupy space in a gallery. It will, literally, be a vehicle for encountering what remains of the past.

I am grateful for the past support of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, The New York Foundation for the Arts, The Marie Walsh Shape Foundation, my loyal base of collectors, and all of my family and friends who have helped me, emotionally and intellectually -- and through the donation of time and the pooling of resources. Art-making is a community effort. I thank you for reading about my project and for whatever support you may feel able to give at this time.

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