Lobsterman as artist: Sam Rogers of Matinicus

First published in the MLA Newsletter, December, 2012.

When people visit Matinicus Island they sometimes go on about how islanders must all enjoy a “simpler lifestyle.” As often as not, they’ve got it dead wrong, as we run around like lunatics dealing with logistics problems and overdoing it with the multi-tasking. If anybody is honestly making an effort at living “the simpler life” on this island, it would be Sam Rogers. This is greatly to his credit and, by all appearances, no accident.

Sam Rogers in his woodshop. Photo by Eva Murray.

Sam is a Matinicus native, a full-time lobsterman, and the sort of artist who doesn’t call himself an artist. I caught up with him on his 50th birthday as he was working on firewood beside his home. Sam lives on the part of the island still called “the flakeyard,” harkening back to many years ago when codfish were dried outdoors there on frames called flakes. His home is up over his shop (which he does not, by the way, refer to as his “studio”). Sam invited me to have a look at the work space where he creates what some would call “kinetic sculptures” or perhaps “nautical-themed lawn ornaments.” Here, the art jargon sounds downright silly. “They’re whirligigs,” Sam assures me. “I call them ‘flying lobster boats’.”

Inside, the wood stove made for a very comfortable visit on a chilly day. Woodworker’s tools, boat models, and whirligig parts all had their places. Sam’s is a comfortable hobbyist’s shop– not a mess, but also not an organized production line or a fancy gallery. I remarked on the sweet smell of sawn lumber and split firewood.

“I’m not into having my stuff up as art for art’s sake. I do it for fun,” he said. “They’re all as different as I can make them, and they’re virtually indestructible. I’d never get my money out of them if I sold them, because I like to use the best paints and glues. These things have been out through hurricanes and nor’easters, they’ll put up with most anything. It drives me nuts when people put them on the shelf in the house. That’s not what they’re for!” He laughs, “I build my toys to be used!”

Most of Rogers’ ‘fl ying lobster boats’ are made from common house lumber. Photo by Eva Murray.

In the corner Sam has some rough lumber clamped to dry flat that will become a spruce tabletop. He shows me the tiny sheet metal wood stove he built to warm his bathroom and shower. Upstairs, there’s an image of a pretty lady carved in wood. The big pile of books and the cat curled up in the corner indicate a homebody.

Unlike many of the big-time Matinicus lobstermen who haul out and take a winter vacation, Sam leaves some traps in all year. “You live on an island, you need something to do. I need to get the salt in my teeth once in a while,” he explained. “But sometimes I think if it was up to me I’d close my doors in October and you wouldn’t see me until spring. I’d do nothing but make sawdust. I would love to do this, and make punts and skiffs.”

Sam wouldn’t mind being a bit more of a boat builder at full scale. “There are a few of the younger guys who row their skiffs now. “Little Dave” [a 20-year-old fisherman] rows, and there are a couple of others. Outboards have been big for 30 years and nobody wanted a rowing punt,” he said. “When I was a kid this harbor was full of skiffs, the Rockland Boat style and other simple styles. These days, you see skiffs around that are uglier than sin, looks like they’re put together with sheetrock screws. I’d just like to fill that niche a little bit, make nice-looking little punts.” Sam went off island recently and met a man who does what he wants to do. “That’s why meeting Walter Simmons up to Lincolnville was so cool for me. He builds decoys and used to build punts. He had worked for Clyde and Merrill Young back years ago. He builds a Matinicus pea-pod [a classic boat that used to be made on the island] and he’s critical about them. He’ll look at a pea-pod that somebody is calling a ‘Matinicus pea-pod’ and say, ‘That was never the boat design that Merrill Young came up with!’”

Sam Rogers’ finished product. Photo by Eva Murray.

Sam makes his creations from number one pine, generally house trim lumber. The whirligigs go to family, friends, whomever Sam wants to give them to. “I’m fascinated with anything with wheels, gears, or wings, but if it fl oats, even better. It don’t matter what it is. If it floats on the water, I’m fascinated with it,” he explained.

“I have to create. My grandfather Clyde Young built me my first toy boat, pretty much just a cedar shingle with a toggle on it, and I’ve been making toy boats ever since. I used to make sailboats and just let them go, out through the harbor, there it goes, goodbye, make another one. I love making toys.”

He shows me pattern boards he’s used for 25 years, scraps of wood with measurements noted, and jigs for making propellers. He shows me the Dynamite Payson hull models he’s learned from. I asked how many whirligigs he thought he had out and around. “I’m willing to bet it’s over 200. I know they’re in Florida, Texas… Some come back for repairs. I tell people, bring ‘em back if they need it.” I asked whether he has made other types of whirligigs besides lobster boats. He answered immediately, with a smile: “Airplanes!”