Waterfront Project: Rebuilding the Grebe

Over the course of the past year and a half, I’ve been working on a project to document Portland’s Waterfront District.  The idea was fueled one day by the realization that, despite all of the time I spend in downtown Portland, there is so much that I fail to see.  It’s not that I’m not looking, I just haven’t stopped to pay attention.  Honestly, I think that’s true of anyone who spends an extended period of time in one area.  The novelty fades; the wonder and excitement is replaced by apathy – sometimes even irritation – as we go about our day-to-day lives.

My personal goal for the project involves satisfying my own curiosity and my desire to capture the everyday events of the working waterfront.  In turn, I hope to rekindle a deeper awareness of the beauty and history that we, as Portlanders, experience every day. Five of my works are currently on display in downtown Portland, so that’s a start!

Prior to installing my show, I caught an exhibit of Winslow Homer works at the Portland Museum of Art.  It was titled “Weatherbeaten” after his 1894 oil on canvas painting of the same name and it showcased a wide range of his works, both in time and media.  His honest depiction of the volatile Maine coast enthralled me.  He painted many familiar locations in a wide variety of conditions, but it was the dark, stormy seascapes that really caught my attention.  Stepping back from the actual work of art, I also noticed the titles that Homer chose; the honesty in his work also stemmed from this – from the way he so simply named the scene he had translated from his eyes to his canvas.

At the time of the Homer exhibit, I was struggling with titling a few of the photographs I intended to include in my show.  To me, each photograph told a piece of the story of the Waterfront; at the same time, they each told their own individual story.  One in particular had me stumped.  There was a boat down a long wharf that was being worked on – the paint had been stripped, new wood had been added to her bow.  She fascinated me.  What would be her fate?  Was she being decommissioned or would this be a renaissance for her?  After seeing the Homer exhibit, there was one simple question I wanted answered more than any other: What was her name?

The afternoon following my visit to the museum, I set out to find her.  The second major snow storm in less than a week was brewing and by the time I left my house, fat, white flakes had begun to fall.  The streets of Portland were still mostly covered with ice and compacted snow from the storm earlier in the week; this made the driving a little rough since the tires on my car are completely unfit for any sort of weather.  Regardless, I barreled down the wharf to find exactly what I expected: the boat was gone.

It had been more than a year and a half.  At this point, I hoped someone might remember it.  I wandered back down the wharf and into the fish market.  A woman there thought she knew whose boat it might be, but she suggested I check with the owner of a store down the street – she might know since her store was a local hangout for the “the guys”, as she referred to them.  I followed the woman’s directions and after a short walk I found myself standing in front of a building I’d passed hundreds of times before, yet never noticed.  I was greeted by a very kind young lady who explained that the owner was usually only there in the mornings.  On a whim, I mentioned what the woman in the fish market told me – that the guys hang out there sometimes.

It turned out that a few were there that afternoon, relaxing by the front window.  The young lady introduced me and I explained that I was looking to find out more information about a boat I’d seen on the wharf.  (Here comes my favorite part!)  I described the time frame and the work being done and almost before I could finish, one of the men exclaimed “That’s my boat!”.  I was almost speechless, as I had no expectation of meeting the owner (at least, not so easily).  After showing him the 4×6 copy of the photo I had been carrying around, he confirmed.  I learned her name – Grebe, after a type of sea bird that builds floating nests – and that she was a 1933 40′ Colin Archer design.  She was relatively unique, I guess, because this particular style was usually built to be several feet longer.  There were two other captains there, as well.  We talked for a while about the boat, which he encouraged me to go see even though snow was covering her deck; we also talked a little about the culture of the waterfront and how so much had changed over the last 25 years.  From my perspective, I’m sure the changes I’ve seen are only superficial – these men were referring to deep, substantial changes in a way of life.

In that moment, I would have loved nothing more than to stay and to listen for hours, but the snow was falling heavily at this point.  I decided it would be best to head home.  I promised the captain a copy of the print – one without all of my scribbles on the back – so I hope for another opportunity to hear an insider’s perspective.

On my walk back to my car, I paid Grebe a visit.  I never would have recognized her in the water, but there she was – covered in snow, safely moored with steam rising from her funnel.

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Details for the current exhibit can be found here: Portland Waterfront Photography Exhibit

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~ by Audra Hatch on January 6, 2013.

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