Charted Waters

Charted Waters

Jonathan Waters sees art in the curve of a boat’s hull and the twist of a scrap of metal. He finds it, too, in things that aren’t so visual—harvesting oysters, repairing a dock. A Yale-trained sculptor, Waters left the New York City art scene decades ago to return home to Stony Creek, where he gave up sculpting to become an oysterman. “There was a lot of art in the boats,” he says. “So, basically, I channeled it… into this other kind of creativity.”

Sitting on his dock on a small cove along the Branford coastline with his daughter, Emilie Waters Harris, Waters takes in a view of local moorings, the Thimble Islands and a summer-blue sky. Closer at hand, the dock is furnished with a fellow fisherman’s lobster traps, Waters’s own metal sculptures and a dry-docked shad boat that floats on nostalgia. Waters spent 30 years gazing at it across the cove, and when its original owner passed it on to him, he brought it across the water. “Of course, she sank on the way,” he says, but sailing it was never the point. “I like looking at it, and I’m perfectly happy looking at it,” Waters says. “I’m still learning things about it. So, to me… it’s turned into an art object…”

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Don’t get Waters wrong. When it comes to farming oysters, he’s not quite so contemplative. He’s in business. Now Harris, who teaches biology at Hopkins School in New Haven during the school year, is coming on board.

It’s a job she was practically raised to do. Much of her childhood was spent on nearby Cut in Two Island, requiring her to commute to school by boat, not bus. The plan for this coming season is that after a long day’s work in the classroom (or, as it were, on Zoom) and depending on the tide, Harris will go out on the Merlin—a brand new boat she helped Waters build—or cull the oysters he’s brought in that day, or bag them, or deliver them to customers. “She’s got salt water in her veins, and she’s got clam and oyster mud under her fingernails,” Waters says, and father and daughter both laugh.

Waters, too, came by both his life’s works—sculpting and oyster farming—honestly. “I grew up in this area, so I was introduced to the water and boats as a child,” he says. His grandfather, Heinz Warneke, was a sculptor, perhaps best known for Penn State’s Nittany Lion Shrine (1942) and a pair of granite elephants, Cow Elephant and Calf (1962), at the entrance to the Philadelphia Zoo. He often sculpted animals and preferred watching fish to catching them. Meanwhile, Waters’s father, a pathologist, loved to fish.

Nevertheless, oystering wasn’t necessarily a logical career move for Waters when he returned to Stony Creek. As far back as the 1950s, the industry had fallen on hard times due to a series of hurricanes and the arrival of more attractive jobs in manufacturing. But in the early ’80s, when Waters arrived, the popularity of raw bars made it look viable again. At the time, Waters says, there was only a “handful” of oyster farmers. Today, he counts about 70 statewide.

Eventually, when competition got stiffer and business suffered under environmental pressures, Waters, like a sailor tacking with the wind, turned back to his art and opened a studio at Erector Square. Then, five years ago, he returned to the water. “Oysters were a lot easier to sell than artwork,” he says, though he hasn’t stopped making the latter.

As for Harris, who grew up with two artist parents—her mother, Michèle Lanou Waters, is a photographer—her interest in biology might trace back to her doctor grandfather, but it’s also the result of what Waters refers to as the “political” aspects of oystering. In Harris’s formative years, the fight against construction of a natural gas terminal and pipeline in Long Island Sound was unfolding. In addition, the family’s oysters were hit by two different infectious diseases; one year they lost their entire harvest. The impact—both personally and environmentally—was not lost on Harris. “How does that happen?” she asks, rhetorically. “ither there’s been some change climate-wise, or what you worry about when there aren’t people sustainably fishing is that you’re having these growths occur and not maintaining the populations. And so all of those things filtered into my track.” When she headed off to study at McGill University in Montreal, she decided to major in microbiology.

Waters describes himself and Harris as a bridge between the “old-timers” who taught him the ropes and younger entrepreneurs who are taking up oyster farming using newer technologies like growing cages and seeding. That’s not all that has changed. The old rule of thumb to eat oysters only in months containing an R (which eliminates May, June, July and August) has fallen by the wayside, though Waters says deep water oysters are usually the best choice in the summer months. The state plays a stronger regulatory role these days, right down to tracking the Merlin’s movements; Waters welcomes the strict permitting and oversight, which helps keep the water clean and prevents overfishing.

In addition, although Waters spent the better part of his career selling the majority of his catch to wholesaler Connecticut Shellfish Company, the farm-to-table movement means he’s meeting some of the restaurateurs who, pre-COVID at least, were putting his oysters on their menus. Even though he and Harris only handle the oysters for six to eight hours once they’re harvested, he feels a certain pride of ownership. “I loved it when guys would come down and buy some here because you actually got to meet them, you know?” he says. “Otherwise, you don’t know. You just take the bags up and they’re gone.”

While sales matter, both Harris and Waters agree there’s another point to their business. Keeping their century-old commercial dock in operation sustains an important piece of Stony Creek history. “There used to be docks like this and buildings all around this cove, fish houses, when fishing was still viable, and we’re one of the few left,” Waters says. Their mission, he says, is to maintain “a real, an active place” and not “a theme park.”

That mission can be a challenge. Oyster prices and demand ebb and flow, sometimes drastically. Hurricanes of the past decade have swamped the dock and flooded the fish house. A bout with cancer took Waters to the edge; he’s still recovering.

One way he did that was through his art. A few of his balanced geometrical pieces, like frames that focus the eye on the beauty of the seaside landscape, stand on the dock. So do their counterparts: rusty, twisted, “tortured” pieces he worked on while sick. “It was just my way of processing what had happened to me because it got really rough,” Waters says. “They’re emblematic of a time in my life, and that’s why they exist and why I keep them here.”

His latest work of art is the Merlin herself. Based on a Chesapeake Bay design—the bay and Long Island Sound share similar sea conditions—it took three years to build her with the help of Harris and a couple of other shipwrights. She’s “a small big boat” with a wheelhouse, three winches and a “spartan” cabin below. Waters monkeyed with her design in order to make her look proportional, which required lowering the wheelhouse. “It would have been a lot more practical if you didn’t have to step down every time you get in and out of it,” he admits, “but on the other hand, for me it was more important to have it look right.”

We’ve been talking for an hour, and the tide is going out. Waters steps into the Merlin’s wheelhouse and starts up the engine, churning up silt from the bottom of the cove. Time to move out to the mooring before the water gets any shallower. He gives a wave as he pulls away from the dock. Harris watches him go, then takes her seat in the shade of a canopy on the dock.

Does it ever get old, being out on the water or looking out at this priceless view, I wonder out loud?

Nope, Harris says. It doesn’t.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 features Emilie Waters Harris with Jonathan Waters.

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