Love is a boat

Former boatbuilder James Dodds’ paintings of traditional boats evoke a deep human need for safety in troubled times

Belinda Bamber

Boats represent adventure, exploration, a journey. In our news feeds they’re about perilous crossings over the Mediterranean or the Channel, in which whole families, or those separated from their children, parents, spouses, lovers or friends, embark from a place of fear and pray to reach the far shore of safety. However simple its construction, however ragged its sail, however cramped the people in its hull (however cruelly unscrupulous its traffickers), for the huddled passengers these boats are small arks heading through wind and rain towards, hopefully, a safe harbour.

The Essex studio of artist James Dodds is full of paintings of boats, whose jewel-like colours glow in the slanting winter sunshine reflected off the Colne estuary. Even though he’s East Anglian through and through, a seasoned sailor since childhood, his paintings aren’t about where the boats are going, but explorations of the vessel itself. There are clinkers, luggers, winklebrigs, Essex smacks, Viking skiffs, Norfolk crabbers, lifeboats, barges and rowing boats, all propped against walls and standing on easels, yet not one of the boats is painted in or on water. They all seem suspended in space – so physically present you’d expect to feel the rough grain of wood and peeling paint if you were to touch the surface, yet they float against a background of light, or darkness. The ribs of their hulls create a womb-like space, comparable to the rhythm of ceiling vaults in a medieval church nave, another place of sanctuary.

Dodds confesses that as a young man he started out making “paintings that tried to solve the problems of the world,” but eventually came to recognise that painting boats is an inner journey for him, a meditative process in which he tries to find the balance between “the holy trinity of head, heart and hand,” sometimes achieving that state of grace in which he forgets everything but the paint and canvas. 

As someone who got a job crewing for a charter boat at fourteen and became apprenticed to a boatbuilder at fifteen (having left school with only art O-level owing to his dyslexia), Dodds still looks the part of someone who lives, dreams and works with boats. He has the habitual Peter Grimes garb of grizzled beard and fisherman’s jersey. But the luminosity of his work and a certain stillness in his bearing suggest the sensitivity of the boy who grew up in an artistic family, struggled with his parents’ divorce, and “became a man” in the boatyards, learning the trade by watching gruff boatbuilder, Alf Last. 

After starting his degree at Chelsea art school – where he was put in the “Constructivist” room because of his boatbuilding experience – he learned to switch between the accent and jargon of the shipyard and that of the art students. “The camaraderie of working in the shipyards, the pits, the coal mines or the steel works [in the ‘70s] – clocking in to your shift, and drinking in the pub on Friday nights, this all gave a strong identity and pride, however hard and damaging it was to your health. It was a sense of belonging to a community,” he observes. “There was a different sort of camaraderie in the art school, and suddenly you’re out there on your own. I think a lot of artists find that very hard to adjust to.”

A man who comes across as thoughtful, gentle and soul-searching, Dodds has long been part of the artistic community of the old fishing village of Wivenhoe, where his studio is on the site of the former shipyard. His many commissions and collaborations, mostly with other artists, writers and architects, recently included a cameo in Joanna Hogg’s acclaimed film The Souvenir, in which he plays the artist father of the main love interest, played by Tom Burke. With no acting history, but plenty of experience being buffeted by life’s storms, he had “no difficulty” summoning the tears required of him in the sequel, The Souvenir II, which arrives in UK cinemas on 22 January.

Dodds was also the major contributor to the crowdfunding for Arabella Dorman’s 2015 work “Flight” in St James’ church, Piccadilly, which drew attention to the plight of refugees crossing the seas. And the artist himself has designed a church window depicting the holy dove and a boat that offers salvation.

 While recognising he can’t change the world through his art, Dodds’ creative life in the studio, together with familial happiness with his wife Catherine, a potter, and their two adult children, is probably at the heart of every refugee’s dream, whether they’re fleeing heartache, domestic trauma or the ravages of war. A family touchstone is Christy Moore’s ballad, The Voyage: “Life is an ocean and love is a boat / In troubled waters that keeps us afloat”.

In The Blue Boat, the recent follow-up to Tide Lines – two richly-illustrated monographs on Dodds’ life and work (by Ian Collins, published by Jardine Press, £35) – the artist writes that:
“The forests are burning, the glaciers are melting, virus rampages and we still look for others to blame. Painting boats has been my solace with the quiet meditation that this work brings… But at the end of the day my boats are just paintings – vessels to carry you wherever you want.”

jamesdodds.co.uk. Paintings from Dodd’s recent exhibition at Messum’s can be viewed by appointment. Visit messums.com for more info. 


Belinda Bamber is Associate Editor at Perspective

Arts & Culture

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