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Volume 2, Number 4
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Portrait of a Monument
Remembrance of Things Past

By Michael W. Fincham

George O'Donnell next to the Maryland Waterman's Monument

He left the water for county politics and business, but George O'Donnell kept his love for the history and culture of commercial fishing along Kent Narrows. After seven years of work, he finally raised enough money to commission the Maryland Waterman's Monument, a bronze memorial to a way of life that may be passing.

Commercial fishing in Kent Narrows is in dire straits - but you wouldn't know it on this mild November morning with nearly three hundred people milling about in the sunlight in front of a makeshift stage. They've come here to the east side of the Narrows to watch the unveiling of a new statue honoring one of the state's oldest professions. It's called the Maryland Waterman's Monument.

At 10 a.m. sharp, George O'Donnell strides to the podium and calls the crowd to order. "The purpose of this day is to purely honor the watermen of the state of Maryland, " he announces. With his broad face, grey black mane and basso profundo voice, O'Donnell makes a genial Master of Ceremonies for the day. A fifth generation waterman, he had to quit the business a decade ago to find better-paying work on land. "It was not a good way to make a living anymore," he explains later. Too many days with not many oysters. "Long story short: the bad outweighed the good."

Today, however, is all good for O'Donnell. The brainstorm to build a monument first struck him over seven years ago while he was serving on the Kent Narrows Development Foundation. This unveiling is the payoff for years of endless organizing and fund-raising by him, his wife Camille and his friend, Tilghman Hemsley, the man he asked to create the monument. Though he left the water for careers in county politics and business, he never lost his love for the history and culture of commercial fishing along Kent Narrows.

Most Marylanders barely notice the Narrows, a thin channel dividing Kent Island from the rest of the Eastern Shore. They race across, well above the water, on a high-arching six-lane bridge built back in the 1980s as part of the state's "Reach the Beach" construction program. Down below the bridge, the new Narrows is now home to half a dozen seafood restaurants, two hotels, dozens of new condos and several marinas crammed with high-end cabin cruisers and sailboats.

Before the high bridge went up, all those cars and buses funneled over a small two-lane drawbridge at Kent Narrows. That's where all the Ocean City beach traffic would back up, as the bridge periodically cranked up to let sailboats and workboats slide through the Narrows. Caught in the bottleneck, beach-bound families could glimpse the world George O'Donnell remembers.

When the Chesapeake Bay was still thick with fish and shellfish, the Narrows was a parade ground for skipjacks and bugeyes and buyboats and deadrise workboats outfitted with odd-looking gear for all kinds of commercial fishing: hand tonging, patent tonging and oyster diving; crab potting and trotlining; drift netting and gill netting and pound netting. Anyone who loves a parade could pull off the road and watch. Or better yet: buy fresh oysters and crabs and clams right at a dozen docks where the boats were unloading.

The crowd for today's unveiling has more locals than tourists and plenty of watermen, more from the past than the present, with their baseball hats set squarely over sunburned faces. A Catholic priest gives a quiet invocation. A burly ex-Marine booms out a soulful National Anthem that can be heard all over the east side of the Narrows. The ceremony, full of speeches with food and drink to follow, has the air of an Irish wake, more celebration than mourning but tinged with loss and regret.

Off to the side stands the monument, a mute hulk draped in black. After several eulogies for a way of life that is passing and a few promises from state officials about a better fishing life to come, the mourners and celebrants file over to the monument to pay their first respects.

The hook and ladder company from Grasonville slides a ladder out over the statue. A fireman in work blues quick steps up the rungs, then hooks and slowly hoists the black drape - unveiling a scene out of an earlier era.

Atop a base of granite two watermen of bronze stand nine feet tall in the bow of a small skiff, oars at the ready. In the bottom of the boat, a couple of rockfish lie among the nets used to catch them. One waterman wears a beat-up slouch hat, a cross between a creased fedora and a narrow-brimmed straw hat. The other sports an old-fashioned "newsboy" cap out of an old movie.

The hats and the oilskins and the boat all suggest a style of fishing from decades ago, according to O'Donnell. A large power boat would tow out a small bateau. A couple watermen would climb into the bateau and pull their way along staked nets, throwing fish in the back before paddling back to the lead boat.

The image behind the statue comes from another time, specifically from a photograph. "It was just an old snapshot," says Tilghman Hemsley, the painter who became a sculptor in order to create this monument. "But man, that to me, looked like that era back in the 1910s."

From the photo he created a sketch, then a small model that he and George hauled around to dozens of meetings, hoping to raise a quarter million dollars. For the final statue he kept the old hats and oilskins and downplayed the net gear, nearly hiding it in the boat. His watermen are not necessarily netters or crabbers or oystermen. "I wanted to leave it open for everybody," he says. He was going for the essence of watermen, and for Hemsley the essence was the emotion in the image. "That was the heart and soul of the feeling of watermen," he says.

A brown-haired man still sunbronzed in November, Tilghman Hemsley IV carries an old Eastern Shore name that was carried before him by forefathers and uncles who were engineers. But Tilghman #IV chose art over engineering. "You've got to take what you're good at - which was not engineering," says Hemsley. "I didn't even try it." After training in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he came back to the Shore and tried to carve out a double career. As a working artist, he painted portraits on commission; as a working waterman he scrubbed decks, cooked and caught fish as a first mate on charterboats. For the last twelve years he has captained his own boat.

As an artist Hemsley says he works in the tradition of realism, trying to capture life as he sees it. Life as he paints it, however, does not fit the "picturesque" tradition of Eastern Shore scenes popular with tourists. Instead of snow-covered boats floating in a winter harbor, he's more likely to paint the inside of a boatyard where a waterman is banging around trying to fix something on his workboat. "To me it's the most typical Eastern Shore scene. It is the backbone of what you do," he says. "Because you are always breaking stuff."

When George O'Donnell asked Hemsley if he could find someone to build a monument to watermen, the artist - who had never tried a large sculpture - thought about it for a second, then said, yeah, he could build it. "Whatever it takes, we'll figure a way to do it."

A moment's decision started a seven-year odyssey in fund raising for both of them and a new education in sculpture for Hemsley. Once the indomitable O'Donnell raised some money, Hemsley had to figure a way to turn a sketch and 15-inch clay model into a bronze sculpture with larger-than life watermen standing 9-feet tall in a skiff nearly 13 feet long.

The experts at the New Arts Foundry in Baltimore told the painter he was crazy to start off with a sculpture that large. "Sometimes the things you do, you got to be a little bit dumb to do 'em," says Hemsley. Or a little bit stubborn. As a waterman, Hemsley was willing to work hard. As an artist he was willing to become an engineer of sorts.

Tilghman Hemsle next to his painting of a skipjack

Painter and charterboat captain, Tilghman Hemsley became a sculptor to honor Bay watermen.

He built a studio, 20 by 30 feet. Then he contrived a platform on wheels that could break away into six sections. Later came piping that he bent and welded to create a skeletal structure. Big foam blocks that he chainsawed into chunks to create shape and filler. Finally a clay exterior that he kept carving and shifting around until the proportions matched his model.

Like watermen with leaky boats, painters who would be sculptors learn to be problem solvers or sink at sea. Helping with the heavy lifting were his son and Tom Callahan, a neighbor and farmer who proved handy with pipe bending. By the middle of the project Hemsley's studio looked a little like a workshop in a local boatyard.

Once Hemsley and his crew finished the pipe-and-foam-and-clay version, they had to cut it apart and ship it off in sections to the experts in Baltimore. There the specialists at the New Arts Foundry took over, creating molds, casting dozens of small bronze panels, and then welding them all together. This is the shop that turned out monuments and busts honoring Marylanders as famous and diverse as Babe Ruth, Thurgood Marshall, Jim Henson, John Unitas and even Louis Goldstein. To that list they can add a monument to unknown watermen.

After the final welds, these bronze watermen look like stylized figures out of an earlier era in art history. With their blocky bodies, outsized heads and work poses, they could walk out of a painting from the Social Realism school, a movement by American artists of the early 20th century who focused less on creating "beautiful" art and more on showing life "as it existed," especially the life of working-class people.

The final objet d'art is certainly a big hit with the (mostly) working-class crowd gathered on a Saturday morning at Kent Narrows. There is loud applause after the unveiling, followed by long lines of spectators slowly circling the sculpture, men and women reaching over to touch the bronze, then stooping to read the names engraved along the granite base.

"It's historic. It's something this community needs," says Karen Ortel, one of the onlookers. "Our history is ingrained in the watermen and the processing industry that was here." She is circling the monument with her father, W. H. Harris, whose name is one of those now ingrained in granite. In 1947, he founded Harris Seafood, the only seafood packing house now left along the Narrows.

Though a monument can't bring back oysters and shucking houses, the locals believe it can bring some of that whizzing traffic down off the high bridge and help Marylanders rediscover Kent Narrows. What they'll find is a statue of 9-foot watermen standing just off the two-lane highway crossing the old drawbridge. To the south and north are the seafood restaurants and marinas that form the business heart of the Narrows today.

For O'Donnell, the waterman-turned-businessman, the monument symbolizes hope for the future. "People think of watermen as independent, but this particular scene, it shows their dependency on each other: Each one is paddling their respective side of the boat. That shows the crew concept," says O'Donnell, "the notion that a lot of people are going to have to work together if there is going to be a way of life in the future."

Hemsley, the painter-turned-sculptor, is less sanguine about that future. "If something happens and the waterman's gone, nobody will know anything about them," he says. But the monument will be there and people who wander down off the high bridge will wonder what it means. "They are going to say what's that? And they'll say: 'It's a waterman. They used to go around here and make a living out on the water.'"

The bronze watermen are mute on the future. Larger than life, with their outdated hats and oilskins, they loom above the people milling around the monument. They face north towards the high bridge and the racing traffic. They seem to be paddling somewhere, perhaps on to the next net, perhaps over to another boat, perhaps back to another time.

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