Accidental Artists

Three Chatham mariners explore their creative sides with beautiful results

By Lisa Cavanaugh | Photography by Julia Cumes

                                                                                                            NICK NICKERSON

Fisherman_Artists-014Retired groundfisherman, long-standing shellfisherman

Chatham Coastal Creations

Diagnosed with throat cancer a decade ago, Nick Nickerson was forced to take a break from fishing. Radiation and chemotherapy left him exhausted, but he still had enough energy to help his granddaughters make a wreath out of shells one Christmas—a gift to their grandmother. He found the experience a pleasant diversion and started to create more wreaths for his own enjoyment. First using bay scallop shells—the iconic shell shape familiar to many—he ended up placing some of his finished works at a friend’s gift shop, and his cottage industry took off. Cancer-free, Nickerson returned to shellfishing, but he decided to continue his shell-craft. He moved from shadow boxes and napkin rings to creating one-of-a-kind mirrors. His Chatham Coastal Creations feature sea scallop shells, ones that most people never see, as they are tossed overboard during on-boat shucking.

Nickerson himself used to scallop commercially, and he worked in many other fisheries, here and in other countries. For three years, he split his time between St. Maarten catching spiny lobsters, and the Cape, fishing for bluefin and other species. “I saw the best of it,” he says, referring to the abundant fishing years. He uses his many fishing community connections to supply his artistry.

“I trade homemade baked goods from my wife and daughter for the shells,” he says. Once he takes possession of the fish totes full of bay scallop shells from his friends’ boats, he goes through an elaborate process in his backyard and basement workshop to turn the pieces into art. First, he washes off the remaining scallop debris on the shells and then soaks them in bleach for a couple of days. Pristinely white, they are then transferred into an outdoor shed where he “grinds” them for the first time, chipping off the rough edges.

Moving the shells down to his basement, he further refines them with a wet belt sander and then organizes them by size before spraying them with a clear gloss. The narrow space is extremely well organized, as befits an experienced boat owner. At well over six feet tall, Nickerson picks his way carefully through his small workshop. He contracts with Classic Woodworks in Cataumet to build his frames and uses Falmouth Glass & Mirror exclusively to cut his mirrors. Another fisherman sprays the frames, but Nickerson does all the time-consuming design and shell work himself. He works on commission for interior designers and homeowners, and his pieces are sold in high-end gift shops in Chatham and across the Cape.

Nickerson still digs for quahogs and traps green crabs for conch bait, but his mirrors are a big part of his life now. His wife is a Cahoon and he thinks of that family as real artists. “I don’t consider myself an artist,” he says. Looking at the carefully crafted circles of sea-harvested artifacts, an observer may beg to differ.

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FRED BENNETT

Veteran fisherman / Wood carver

Summer mornings still find Fred Bennett digging for quahogs in the fertile sands of Chatham’s waterways. But this veteran fisherman turns to different tools in the afternoons and throughout the long winters on Cape Cod. Small, sharp knives and delicate wood burners fill his workshop—a small room off his colonial-style Fisherman_Artists-041living room. The exquisite wood carvings that emerge are often of the seabirds and fish he has observed his whole life.

“It’s really more of a hobby,” he says, his face tanned from decades on the water. “I went to a wood-carving exhibit at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster 10 or 12 years ago and thought I’d like to try my hand at it.” He was fortunate to meet and learn the basics from renowned wood carver Steve Weaver and eventually joined a weekly artists’ roundtable of carvers and painters.

“I’m actually color-blind,” admits Bennett, “so the others guide me on paint colors. Without their help, I’d come up with some pretty strange-looking animals!” His precisely cut carvings made from bass wood feature many details from memory. A cod fish looks freshly caught and a least tern appears as if it’s about to take flight.

A native of New England, Bennett first moved to the Cape for a land-based job, and he and his family ran Old Harbor Marine for years before he took to the water to fish. He longlined for cod and haddock in what he calls “the heyday” (1970s and ’80s), and jigged and harpooned for bluefin tuna. He still works as a host at the Chatham Fish Pier, answering tourists’ questions about the boats steaming in, loaded with their catches.

Although he has sold a few pieces and donated others to nonprofit auctions, Bennett says he carves mainly to keep active during the cold months. Bennett, who relishes the social interaction of the artists’ group, says the work itself is relaxing. He enjoys researching images of birds to accurately carve their wings and feathers—and his wife’s front garden is a wonderful source of living avian models.

Bennett’s carvings seem to catch the living magic of the fish, birds and sea mammals of Cape Cod and its waters. He displays with pride his carved humpbacked whales and bluefin tuna. Bennet recalls migrating geese and the oyster catchers that would follow his boat, and one particular little piper enchanted him. “He was in a long line of other birds, hopping along, I couldn’t figure out what was up with him, he was moving so oddly. But then I saw he was missing a leg! He still kept up, though. He didn’t quit; just kept hopping along.”

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STU TOLLEY

Former commercial fisherman / Chatham Under Glass tables and wall decor

Fisherman_Artists-029Not far from the at-home workshops of Fred Bennett and Nick Nickerson is Pilgrim’s Landing, the retail center of Stu Tolley and his wife, Dawn. In addition to a shop dedicated to meditation and mindfulness books and gifts, the building also houses a museum-like center that celebrates the couple’s combined heritages. Dawn descended from Mayflower passengers and there is a curated nook, framed in antique wood, depicting the pilgrims’s passage to America. Stu commercially fished for most of his adult life before retiring a few years back, and he has a corner display of video and photos showing the Dawn T., his 45’ gillnet boat, which he recently sold to another captain. Moving a few steps down into a different room, one finds his Chatham Under Glass workspace where he creates a unique collection of ocean-inspired coffee tables and wall decor.

After he stopped fishing, and was dealing with a number of physical ailments (“Fishing is a tough job,” he says), Stu unearthed a coffee table project he had tinkered with that was languishing in his basement. He fixed it up and decided to start producing more. He has his coffee tables built by local woodworkers with glass tops, beneath which he crafts intricate landscapes of sand and shells and other ocean detritus. Whorls of seaweed wind through the sand and the shells are patterned like waves. In addition to the tableau coffee tables, Stu also makes wall art and shadow boxes out of driftwood and shells.

Stu really enjoys both the work and the finished results. “Looking at them, what I find happens,” he says, “is your eyes wander and follow a path. It takes you on a little journey.”

He doesn’t recall being a beachcomber before a vacation to Aruba in the ’80s, where the abundance of beautiful shells inspired him to search for items at home. However, he did find a photo from when he was three or four years old, on the beach with a pail full of shells in front of him, a smile on his face. “So maybe it was always in me,” he says, with a laugh.

The shells and seaweed strands for his pieces are cleaned, dried and shellacked, and carefully organized in bins next to his work table. A poster of local shells hangs on the wall as a reference guide, but he recognizes most of them on his own. He acknowledges knowing the sea well, having fished as a young man with his father and brother before getting his own boat. He now collects his materials on the same Chatham beaches from which he used to set sail and has turned his seafaring experience into artistic expression.

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