Boatbuilder Ralph Stanley Chosen for NEA Fellowship

by Heather Wilkinson, "The Ellsworth American", Thursday, May 27, 1999

SOUTHWEST HARBOR - Local master boatbuilder Ralph Stanley has been chosen to receive a $10,000 National Heritage Fellowship, the country's most prestigious honor in folk and traditional arts.

This fall, 13 fellowships will be presented to artists in 12 states by the National Endowment for the Arts. More than 200 fellowships have been awarded since the first in 1982. Among those chosen were a gospel singer from North Carolina, a basket-maker from California and an American Indian storyteller from North Dakota.

Bill Ivey, endowment chair, said the fellows are "outstanding artists and individuals who have dedicated their lives to preserving, reviving and celebrating this country's living cultural heritage."

He said by honoring their contributions to the arts "we also pay homage to the communities that have inspired and nurtured their work." This award honors the people and environment that nurtured the artist as much as the artist himself.

Stanley has dedicated nearly his entire life to building, designing and restoring boats. Over the course of his career, Stanley has worked on countless wooden boats ranging from lobstering vessels to racing sloops and pleasure yachts. He now owns and operates Ralph W. Stanley Inc. Boats on Clark Point Road in Southwest Harbor.

"Building wooden boats is like climbing a still growing tree where you never get to the top. I wouldn't want to be stuck at the same point," Stanley said.

Born in Bar Harbor, he is descended from a long line of mariners. His paternal great-grandfather owned numerous fishing schooners. His maternal great-grandfather was the captain of a three-masted schooner.

Stanley grew up in Southwest Harbor. As a child he made toy boats out of wood and drew boats he saw in the harbor. He used to love tagging along with his father, a lobsterman, as he hauled traps.

Stanley said he learned about boatbuilding by watching locals in the same trade. He started his first boat, a 28-foot lobster boat, in 1951. This launched a career that has evolved from building working vessels to crafting racing and pleasure boats. One thing remained the same, however: his attention and his love of a creative design process.

At the heart of Stanley's work is his dedication to wooden boats. With the advent of fiberglass, many builders switched to synthetic material because it is cheaper and easier to maintain. For Stanley though, the choice to remain with cedar, oak and pine was made for both aesthetic and practical reasons. He wanted to maintain the centuries-old skills involved with woodworking. He also realized pre-manufactured fiberglass molds limit the creative process of boat design. He's also kept up with the changing face of technology. What Stanley used to do with just a pencil and drafting paper, he is now able to create with computer programs. Of course there are still sketches and plans best plotted on paper but software accents the work, Stanley said.

Computer programs such as AeroHydro make it easier and less time-consuming to figure the geometry of the vessel-to-be. Software allows builders to consider several designs based on specific criteria. Even though he remains with the wooden tradition, Stanley does take advantage of technological products. "I keep finding new ways of doing things and new things to do. You can always improve, you're always looking to improve," Stanley said.

The wedding of tradition and innovation extends to the types of boats he chooses to make. After the demand for wooden lobster boats diminished, he began building Friendship sloops. These single-masted sailing vessels were developed in the 1880's by builders in Friendship to be used for lobstering and inshore fishing. These sloops were later adapted by recreational sailors. Stanley revived the local interest in these vessels. He was most recently depicted in the May/June issue of Woodenboat magazine designing and building the 28-foot Dorothy Elizabeth schooner with author and friend Roger Duncan.

Stanley said the fellowship will certainly help maintain his confidence as an artist. It also emphasizes the importance of the wooden boat as a part of Maine culture and a hardworking coastal tradition. He said he'll keep building and innovating - continually looking for the best all around design and building processes.

He said no matter what type of boat he's designing, building or restoring, it is important to remain focused and passionate about the art and trade itself. "Building a boat is like painting a painting," he said. "It's not something you just do, its something you see in your mind. You need to have your own ideas and you need to have confidence in them."