Issue: November 2000
Water of Art, Water of Life

Chestertown, Md. artist Marc Castelli has spent years on the water with the Bay’s working boats and people. His watercolors reflect in faultless detail the endless pace of the life, and the beauty inherent in it.


     Ask your average waterman whether there is art in his way of life, and he’ll more than likely laugh you off the dock. Live in his parched skin, feel his shoulders and arms and back after a bitter cold day under a lowering sky and a breeze damp enough to drive home the chill. This is what Marc Castelli, an artist from Chestertown, Md., invites you do to with Tonging Weather/Miss Sky (right).

     As with all of his watercolors of the Bay’s watermen at work, Castelli leaves no detail untouched. Truth to subject is one of his hallmarks,  and he obtains this accuracy by spending months and years photographing and sketching his subjects before laying them finally to paper. And so the creek-damp air is tangible as it ghosts across this workboat’s deck and cockpit. The snow melts on your cheeks, a pinprick of coolness before the body’s heat erases it. The heft and weight of the tongs and their oysters lies heavy across your shoulders, and the bent back of the culler burns slow and long as the day wears on.

     Castelli will be the first to join the watermen in their ire at those who imagine they live and work in sepia tones. Having spent years earning the watermen’s trust, working with them in all weather, he found himself in awe of their way of life, their love of their families and their skill at their work. And, in spite of the irony, in these things lies the beauty and the art revealed.

     The Chesapeake’s skipjacks have a kind of tiredness about them, and a patience that comes from decades of backbreaking work and hard sailing. Castelli’s July Waiting on November/Wenona (below) catches those feelings in its summer-still water and the empty decks of the workboat. Wenona, on the Bay side of DealIsland, has its own fleet of skipjacks. When they’re not working, the boats are put up in the harbor for summer, where they wait for November (actually October now, with the latest rule change) and the start of oyster season.

     In Slack the Cable/Rebecca T. Ruark (right), winter is again upon the oystering fleet, and the short, cold days are end-to-end hard work. Captain Wade Murphy teaches his mid-deck crew to slack the dredge’s cable so shipping it over the side can be done with the proper snap. This prevents the dredge bag from fouling on the teeth and getting ground up on the bar as it drags along. Castelli first met and sailed with Murphy on the Rebecca T. Ruark in 1994 and has been out oystering with him for at least a few days every year since. In October 1999, the Ruark sank in heavy weather. All hands were saved, and three days later the boat was raised from the bottom. Castelli was there as the Ruark surfaced and says it was amazing to see the years drop from Murphy’s face when he could walk her decks again.

     Castelli’s work focuses on the Bay’s Eastern Shore and the ways of the water that make it unique. Log canoes, indigenous to the Bay, were once used to harvest oysters. Nowadays, the sleek but hugely overpowered boats are used for recreation-if you can call shinnying out on a skinny board over nettle-infested waters “recreation.” Log canoe racing on the Eastern Shore has become a beloved Bay tradition and has proven a terrific way to keep the old design alive.

     In Making the Gulls Weep/Island Lark (left), Castelli caught Island Lark going full blast across an Eastern Shore river. Built in the early 1900s, the boat is a fine example of the log canoe. Long, narrow and shoal draft with a centerboard, Island Bird is typical of her breed. All that keeps her on top of the water when the wind fills her ample sail area is the weight-constantly on the move-of the crew. In 9 Out of the Corner/Island Blossom (below), Castelli catches Island Blossom and Persistence just as they’ve finished rounding a mark.

     Castelli is a racing sailor himself-E- and C-scows, IOR designs. As any racing sailor will tell you, once you’re hooked on the dynamic beauty of the sport, you’re done for. Several years ago, Castelli had the chance to cover the America’s Cup, and he admits he’s gotten addicted to the venue. As an artist, he says, “It’s an issue of absolutely

beautiful shapes, water, figure studies, sails, sky. I do like the boats. I think they’re quite exotic and quite beautiful.”

     Remember Caesar Thou Art Mortal/Luna Rosa vs. AmericaOne (below) emerged from his trip to the challenger series for the most recent America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand. Setting Out/Chessie (right) depicts the start of the Whitbread Round the World Race when it left Southampton, England, in 1997. Castelli had spent time with Chessie, the race’s only Maryland entry, after the boat’s sea trials on the Bay and in New England. Painting state-of-the-art racing sailboats may seem a rather abrupt departure from the classic boats of the Eastern Shore. But Castelli sees some provocative parallels. “There’s a real function of form and purpose to shape on both boats. There’s nothing on a workboat that’s not there for a reason, and there’s nothing on a racing boat that’s not there for a reason.” 

     Marc Castelli’s work is available at the Carla Massoni Gallery in Chestertown, Md.