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Mosaics from the sea

Boatbuilder and carpenter Frank Rapoza of Vineyard Haven turns his attention to art, crafting mosaic landscapes from wampum, shell, and ebony.
BY ELISSA LASH
frank rapoza
Frank Rapoza may be better known as a boat builder, but now he’s making art with wampum.

The West Tisbury studio of Frank M. Rapoza is akin to a magical, nautical curiosity shop. The shelves and tables display all manner of tools and materials: ebony wood recovered from the cargo of a sunken ship, swordfish bills, a wet-diamond band saw, a lapidary machine with wheels of differing grits, jingle shells, and stained glass. Clearly many projects are underway, yet there is an order to the strange assortment.

The space, smelling of wood smoke and speckled with sunlight and shadow from the many windows, was once devoted to carpentry and boat building projects, but Frank’s new focus is the mixed-media tile landscapes on one of the worktables. The pieces are labor-intensive and intricate, combining carved and polished wampum tiles with other shells and glass fragments. They require skill and artistry to construct, although Frank is reticent to describe his work in those terms.

“My father always said, you never call yourself an artist,” he says. “The general public decides if what you do is art.”

The general public certainly likes his work. At Frank’s first show, held last June at State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury, he sold nearly all of his finished pieces and garnered several commissions. The level of positive response was a pleasant surprise for Frank, who’d taken a risk when he decided to use wampum, carved and polished pieces of quahaug shell that traditionally were made into beads and used as currency and for sacred ceremonies in many Northeastern Native American tribes.

Although Frank has no Native American ancestry, he was drawn to wampum as a material after viewing the work of Nashawena Island caretaker Manny Sarmento. Frank, who lives on nearby Cuttyhunk Island several months a year, says Manny and his work are beloved there, displayed at the Cuttyhunk Church and the Cuttyhunk Historical Society.

Two winters ago, with forty years of experience as a skilled carpenter and boat builder, Frank decided to try his hand at making wampum mosaics. “I wanted to try something different; I took a winter off from carpentry. It was trial and error to figure out how to work with these materials. The first year I didn’t have much insight into what the body of work would represent. I knew I wanted to keep learning something new. It keeps it exciting for me.”

Frank taught himself how to cut, carve, and polish quahaug shells to create wampum tiles. He then arranges them into patterns that are framed with ebony from a cargo of ebony logs that were aboard the Dolphin, a schooner that wrecked in 1854 off the south coast of Cuttyhunk. His first collection – twenty wampum mosaics – was simple, elegant, and geometric, and the primary focus was on the material itself.

wampum frank rapoza
Frank’s “Squibnocket” comprises quahaug shells, crushed jingle shells, and salvaged ebony.

“Every culture has done mosaics,” he says. “I knew a bit on the history of wampum. I saw a great deal of possibility in this material. I liked the idea of making something where every component was from the sea.” And although devoting a winter to experimenting with shells might seem a gamble, the pursuit of artistry and craftsmanship is actually part of Frank’s lineage.

Young Frank grew up on the water in South Dartmouth. His father, Francisco Rapoza, was an artist by trade, a painter who depicted ships in marine and harbor scenes. During the war, Francisco worked as a boat builder in Casey’s Ship-yard in Fairhaven, repairing wooden hospital ships. Later he was part of the museum crew on the renowned Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaling ship, when the vessel was stored at the Round Hill estate in South Dartmouth in the 1920s and ’30s.

“I remember his boat-building tools all around his studio. In fact, I started with his tools, and I still have them today and use them on many projects,” says Frank.

As a boy, Frank knew he wanted to have a hand in building boats. After high school, he apprenticed at the Concordia Boatyard, and when the wooden ship contracts ran out, he moved to Mystic, Connecticut. “It was the place to go to learn a lot about the construction of wooden ships.”

By that point, Frank had built his own small sailboat on which he lived year-round. On an apprentice wage, boat living made the most sense and seemed to suit him. “They didn’t charge me to tie up, and I had the keys to the shipyard woodworking shops when I needed a break from the water.”

After four years in Mystic, in the mid-1970s Frank met Captain Bob Douglas, owner of the schooner Shenandoah, now one of the Black Dog tall ships sailing New England waters and moored in Vineyard Haven. The captain invited Frank to work on two boats he had recently bought in Europe: the Violet, a Scottish Zulu ketch fishing boat, and the Raider, a Bristol channel pilot cutter.

Always seeking a new adventure and opportunity to learn, Frank, who’d sailed to the Vineyard before, agreed to join Captain Douglas’s team, and decided the Island was a good fit. “I found the people here very interesting – a talented, energetic group of people doing carpentry and boating. There were a lot of young people my age living on boats. Most of them, like me, had originally come from someplace else.”

Frank became known for his carpentry and boat-building skills, working as a ship’s caulker at Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway and rebuilding the catboat Gay Head for Ralph Packer. Behind the scenes he “dabbled” with watercolors and oils: “I always like learning something new.”

frank rapoza wampum carving
The individual wampum mosaic pieces require hours of carving, smoothing, and polishing.

Learning and dabbling quickly become mastery when Frank Rapoza gives a project or technique his full attention. This summer he’ll present his second collection of wampum tile mosaics and the new work is stunning, using a broader range of materials and telling more of a visual story. For this year’s collection Frank says he came in with a “clear vision. I knew I’d do landscapes. I knew I’d incorporate stained glass and use new local shells. I had an idea for each piece. This year every piece has a title and a theme. I’ve always worn many different hats. I never thought I’d do something like my father. If nothing had sold last year, I’d be back to working as a carpenter, but here I am.”

Frank has a black-and-white family photograph taken in his father’s studio, which was wallpapered with National Geographic maps: Young Frank and his sister wearing their pajamas stare up at the handsome Francisco with awe; the painter, standing amid his paintings, both finished and in progress, has a tender and bemused expression as he looks at his young children.

“My father would love this if he were alive,” says Frank of his current endeavors. “I may display this photograph at my next exhibit to honor him.”

Before his second show, which opens Monday, July 15, at State Road Restaurant, Frank Rapoza will volunteer as a ship’s caulker on the Charles W. Morgan, the whaling ship his father worked on some eighty years ago, another way to recognize and honor his father’s memory. The ship was moved to Mystic in 1941, a hundred years after it was launched, and then designated a National Historic Landmark in 1967. Both the show and the ship bring elements of Frank’s life full circle, combining the artistry and mechanics of a life lived by the sea. u


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(Originally published in the July 2013 edition of Martha's Vineyard Magazine)

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