By Ken Riaf
Jeff Marshall’s studio sits above the tide on Smith Cove and overlooks a truck corral down at the Morse Sibley Wharf. It’s where fisherman hitch their workhorses for however long it takes to get the fish from out there to back here. The ancient pilings driven deep into clay centuries ago and sistered to newer stringers form a solid structure. But it’s akin to the old utility knife that over time acquired two new blades and three new handles.
The wharf’s beaverized timbers and moaning spiles hover above a dank cavern of wooden stalagmites and yet, despite its picturesque decay, it’s still a place to go fishing from.
Pickup trucks rest on a scrapple of broken asphalt penned-in by rusting cargo containers and dredges laced with Tansy gone to seed. There’s a hogged wooden hull up against a battered wharfhouse whose padlock gets shielded from the weather by a leather flap above the hasp. Decomposing memories of fisheries past – a Gillnet dries on a wooden spool and a stone-age winch is ready to start a new life as a mooring stone.
In earlier times a telephone pole spiked with store bought and makeshift signs warned unwary interlopers:
We’ve Seen Your Approach Now Let’s See Your Departure and No Trespassing means Go Away, Go Away Means You or the ever popular I Gave At The Office.
An Old Horse Knows the Way
The classic wharf truck hauled and dragged whatever needed hauling or dragging from A to B and sometimes as far as C. In a time when working folks understood one another’s burdens and the beasts that carried them, a yellowed inspection sticker or expired plate were often overlooked with a friendly nod as good as a wink. In a world of rust and midnight doings the waterfront code of live and let live was the grease that made the dockyard’s hum.
A point of pride was seeing just how long one could keep the heap. Could you coax it to expire at the junkyard gate? The Morse Sibley corollary to Murphy’s Law “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” was – “I know it’s broken but it works all the same”.
Outside of a dog, a pickup truck is mans best friend – inside of a dog, it’s too dark to drive.
Everything has at least two sides to it from dishes that need washing to the great philosophies. The wharf truck probably has at least four sides, those being inside & out and top & bottom.
The cab is a place to get out of the weather while your vessel idles awake. It’s a smokey, fishy, coal-tar pitch museum of the trade. Retired oilskins fused with fish scales and the mending needles in the glove box are always close at hand. There’s a candy dish of melted bon-bons on the dashboard and bits of old lunch wedged in the visor.
Patches of red lead filler and gray primer hide the scars. She lists to starboard on a balding tire squared from sitting. Those are its topsides and keel. A land scow that the family dubbed “Our Shame.” And what of lost mariners who never return to claim their mounts? Keys dangle in the ignition because who would want to thieve this? The newspaper splayed to the sports page beside a bottle of Moxie and a half-eaten lobster roll. These things happen.
In Fishtown, one might refer to someone not entirely tethered to his mental moorings by genteelly suggesting that the poor fellow’s wharf “doesn’t go all the way down to the water”. Well, the Morse Sibley wharf does go down there and has been doing so since the age of sail. Future fishers will shelter in the lee of their steeds to talk weather, the price of fish and about that new electric pick-up truck, they’re gonna get someday.
So now comes Marshall to set himself, easel, paints and tools at the hub of this sometimes milling sometimes solitary station where fishers hitch their warhorses, cast the lines and slip to the fog. He knows the situation and the terrain down the old pier and his subjects know how to hold a pose.
Gone … Fishing, a special exhibition of recent work by Jeffrey Marshall, is on now until November 25th at the Cape Ann Museum.
Ken Riaf is a lawyer, artist, author, educator, playwright, activist and all around great guy who owns and operates the Law & Water Gallery on Pleasant Street in Gloucester.