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Far From Midtown, She's Fallen in Love With the Sea


Greenport, N.Y.

Ed Betz for The New York Times



We're ghosting, sailing very slowly in a sluggish breeze, through Greenport Harbor in the 28-foot wooden schooner Annie, which the artist Arden Scott built for herself. We're pointed toward the double granite plinths of Ms. Scott's Maritime Monument, which in a less murky dusk would frame the North Star.

The monument's two columns are carved at the crowns like racing boats, upended and sinking. They merge as we pass them, then angle apart, as things and people do at sea. We're heading home without the engine, slaloming through a parking lot of boats anchored to densely packed moorings, our sails unfurled to grab any stirring of the heavy August air.

Ms. Scott has always done things the hard way, going against the current without giving it a thought. In the feminist 60's and 70's, she stayed married and raised four children, while homesteading a succession of downtown Manhattan lofts that were being displaced by the building of the World Trade Center and the urban renewal that followed.

She scavenged dumpsters for discarded sails or plastic and cardboard tubing, which she would prop, suspend and bend into abstract walk-through environments. She carved timbers from demolition sites into complex curves with an adz she had learned to use rehabilitating a succession of rotting sailboats. Her day job was plumbing, and the kids tagged along.

In 1978, priced out of what was by then TriBeCa and dislodged from the City Island boat shed in which she'd been making her art, she found herself a studio in Greenport, a workaday fishing village on the North Fork of Long Island. It never occurred to her that the move to a harbor town 100 miles east of Manhattan would cause her, year by year in slow motion, to drop off the edge of the New York art world.

Now, more than two decades later, a portion of that art world has discovered Greenport and rediscovered Arden Scott at 63.

Through September, Carolyn Lanchner, a recently retired curator at the Museum of Modern Art whose exhibitions included retrospectives of Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee and Joan Miró, and Richard Eagan, founding director of the former Twining Gallery in SoHo, are organizing an intimate survey of Ms. Scott's work. For three weekends starting on Saturday, Ms. Lanchner and Mr. Eagan are inviting the public into their gardens in East Marion and Greenport, where Ms. Scott's sculptures temporarily flank pools and sprout from flower beds. (A map is available at Mr. Eagan's gate, 636 Main Street, Greenport, from noon to 6.)

The curves of all these sculptures describe the bones of boats - dugouts, Viking skiffs, sculls, a Greek vessel suggested by an Attic vase, a Nordic longboat. They are minimal as a steel rod, or dense with twigs, nails, tarred marlin, copper mesh. Abstract or explicit, they take their cues from cave and rock paintings, Celtic sagas, the Maori canoe at the Metropolitan Museum, a clay funerary version of a Mesopotamian skiff. Their diverse vocabulary is rooted in the art of Julio González, David Smith, Herman Melville and Buckminster Fuller. They are meditations on the space of the sky amplified by the lines of rigging, or the menacing rush of waves pummeling a hull in an unforgiving sea.

"I have brought colleagues to her studio and they have been as struck by the work as I am," Ms. Lanchner says. "It has a subtle and very elegant beauty that may not be what these times are all about but has an enduring presence."

Like the Maritime Monument, Ms. Scott's sculptures are at once archaic and contemporary; they are concrete metaphors for the ways in which time and space are exposed as relative at sea. It was while Ms. Scott was fulfilling the Village of Greenport's 1986 commission for the monument to those lost at sea that she recognized how implicit boats had always been in the abstract shapes she had been making.

"I'd been using the curve without the image," she says. "But then how many times can you do that? It starts being the same thing."

She found her nautical solution to the monument in the stern of America's Cup racing yachts.

By then she was building the mahogany cabin and laying the teak deck on her own seaworthy schooner in Annie Barstow's boat yard. She launched the Annie in 1988.

"My boat looked very sculptural," Ms. Scott says. "Looking back, there was a logical connection to the sculpture, even though I didn't make it myself. I thought my sculpture was purely abstract, but when I look at old drawings, I see I was using stuff from boats since the mid-60's. I think a lot of abstraction comes from intellectual constructs or visual ones."

Ms. Lanchner says: "For Arden, life and art converge seamlessly. This may account in part for some of the grace and serenity of the pieces, which doesn't exclude a certain ferocity."

In life and art Ms. Scott is a problem solver who appreciates the nuts and bolts of things. Boat making is an ancient technology; she practices it for a living as a seasonal rigger in Brewer's Boat Yard. She is lean and ropy. Her necessary habits of thrift include rolling her own cigarettes. There's another side. She goes to Mass on Sundays, and plays her bagpipes, the classical, mystical piobaireachd music of the Scottish Highlands, on land and sea. The elemental and the mythological, the practical and the metaphysical all inhabit her sculpture.

Her 2001 hanging sculpture "Ita" is named after a powerful early Christian female Irish saint. Its materials are primal: eel grass, cotton as translucent as skin and the thorny branches with which young locust trees fend off marauding deer. The hull's cradled curve is a reminder that in some cultures boats were biers, set on fire and put out to sea. In all cultures boats signify the journey of life. The thorns are woven like ancient hedging and feathered aggressively at the stern, suggesting Norse legend, sacrifice and war. Ita, Ms. Scott discovered after the fact, was also the name of one of the American nuns raped and murdered during the civil war in El Salvador in 1980.

The 2001 "Leap Up and Lick the Sky," after a line in "Moby-Dick," on the other hand, is giddy as a child's drawing. It is a wall piece. Its steel-ribbed belly, mottled at the seams with bronze braising rods, is free form and scantily clothed in a narrow strip of resin-treated cloth. A single buoyant curve insinuates the sail.

Sailing the Annie, or teaching drawing and maritime literature on three-month voyages aboard tall ships for Southampton College's Seamester program, Ms. Scott is well acquainted with the exhilaration and terror of seafaring.

"On the ocean even the most brain-dead nincompoop gets the idea that you're not safe anymore, you're totally out of control," she says. "The weather and the water are in total control and you have to work with them to survive. I like that, that edge."

The edge is patent in her latest piece, the 14-foot-long welded steel "Long Tack Keeping." Its title is taken from "The Bridge" by Hart Crane. A boat is a bridge between man and nature, however insubstantial. Ms. Scott's sculptures are always like drawings in space, but in this case the lines are straight and hatched, as in an etching. They delineate a gondola and the way water quilts around it, altering colors, distorting, confusing substance with the reflection of it. The gondola, upright on a striated base, looks capable of holding its course, but there is nothing in the spaces between the steel rods to keep it afloat.

"Long Tack Keeping" is one of the fruits of a 2001-02 Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant, which gave Ms. Scott time and money to work big and experiment with bronze and steel. It was the first major grant since her 1981 Guggenheim. In the years since the Guggenheim, she has shown mostly in group shows. Her fortunes began to turn when Glynis Berry, a New York architect with a discerning eye, opened her Greenport gallery, Art Sites, two years ago and gave Ms. Scott a solo show.

On board Annie that recent evening, the artist accepts another beer from her husband, Keith McCamy, a mathematician, then tumbles headlong into a story about her adventures the way children do, covering her mouth when she laughs.

"I love boats because they are mysterious," she says, as she navigates an obstacle course of vessels and slides effortlessly alongside the dinghy she built out of green oak scraps and leftover roofing. The dinghy is a story-book fantasy, old-fashioned and beguiling without the extra weight of layered meaning. It's a boat, not a sculpture.

"All that matters," Ms. Scott says, lifting a bare foot over the rail, "is that a voyage is going on."  




2009 © Arden Scott