Model shipbuilding is an art featured in maritime museums and the finest of fine arts museums, but it’s a skill that doesn’t require patience, according to veteran model shipbuilder Rob Napier – it requires perseverance.
After all, he said, patience is required for something that one doesn’t like, and model shipbuilders love what they do.
“The ability to keep a focused attention-span for long periods of time is entirely necessary in doing long-term ship modeling projects,” said Napier, who will be the guest speaker at a reception tonight (March 1) for the current ship model show at the Constitution Museum in the Navy Yard. “A lot of people like to say to us that we must have a lot of patience, but I think all model shipbuilders hate being told that. A former member of our guild once said that patience is something you need to deal with things you do not love. We have perseverance and stick-to-it-tiveness and we love and are passionate about what we’re doing.”
Napier is a longtime member of the USS Constitution Model Shipwright’s Guild, which meets monthly at the Constitution Museum in Charlestown and holds and annual show of member work. Their current show has about 65 pieces in it and has been on display since January at the Museum, but today, March 1, the Museum will hold a public reception where Napier will discuss how to critically look at a model ship. He should know.
For more than 40 years, the Vietnam veteran has been a full-time model shipbuilder who creates new pieces, maintains private collections and consults on public collections such as at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Napier said he actually could have started his career as a boy, as his interest went that far back, but he instead tried to concentrate on maritime pursuits to be close to ships. Though even that would not keep him away from his love of model shipbuilding.
“I was interested in this since I was a little boy,” he said. “I went through though and tried to do other things when I was college age that lined up more with what my parents thought I should do. Ship-model building wasn’t an accepted vocation in the 1960s.”
He tried pre-med in college, but it didn’t work. So, he joined the Navy and did two tours with the Navy in Vietnam. He did commercial fishing and spent a great deal of time on yachts – anything to be close to boats.
“When I was 26 or 27, I said, this is it,” he recalled. “This is going to be my career. I’m going to build ship models full time. That has taken me down many, many interesting paths that have been enjoyable… I don’t just build ship models, but I maintain them for institutions…I like to work on collections on site where the collection is and I tend to travel to those locations.”
Not everyone in the Guild is a professional, though, said Napier.
Most are amateurs or part-time professionals, and some builders are prolific, while others take time. Napier said he can take as long as 18 months on a big project. Such projects for builders are a test of perseverance.
“One problem with ship models is you don’t get a sense of completion very often, especially on the long-term projects,” he said. “So you have to break a job down into phases and goals. You can celebrate the completion of a phase, and then move on and dive in again…Some times it can seem like you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel if you don’t. It can get frustrating.”
At this year’s show, there is a model of the USS Constitution, as well as a model of a ship whose owner, Larry Ward, was chosen during the Obama administration to exhibit the work in the White House.
Another builder, Tony Malia, has created a hypothetical model of the ancient sea legend of the Flying Dutchman ship. Using sea legends to build the ghost ship, Malia constructed half of the ship and used mirrors in a way to where the ship appears full at one angle, and disappears from another angle.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors and that’s very clever,” said Napier.
Overall, the show captures a great cross-section of one of the country’s most talented and active guilds, and is one residents shouldn’t let sail away without taking a peek first.