Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sunrise Training

It was a perfect morning today for my first training session with New Bedford Community Rowing. We went out in a 4 (4 person boat), since there weren't enough people for an 8.

I'm beginning to realize that my 20 mile trip isn't really going to be a big deal. It seemed extreme when I first started thinking about rowing from Martha's Vineyard to Mattapoisett. I've only ever crossed Buzzards Bay in a huge ferry.

But this morning, we rowed several miles. Sure, it was exhausting. Sure, I ripped the skin off of two fingers and reopened Wednesday's blisters. But it was only my 6th time out on the water.

The coach this morning told me about a 25 mile race up the Hudson. My 20 miles is not outrageous.

When I first started cycling, I thought 25 miles was long. Now I can ride the one-day, 210 mile trip from Brooklyn to Massachusetts.

The harder part of this trip will be getting a crew together to help me with the row and with documenting it. I'm used to doing everything myself. But, of course, this need for cooperation is what this project is about. Gideon Dexter died trying to row by himself. Rowing crew is a group effort. Working as part of a team is outside the skill-set of most artists.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


This week marked the third and final week of my introduction to rowing class with New Bedford Community Rowing. I'll post a little footage soon, but I didn't shoot as much as I'd hoped. My (unfulfilled) plan had been to put my camera in an underwater case to protect it from splashes and salt-water spray. The SNAFU in that plan is that Sony, about a year ago, stopped making the case made for my camera.

So I've been trolling the Internet for months looking for the discontinued model on ebay and amazon marketplace, etc. and I've been reviewing alternatives (which fell into two camps, either thousands of dollars for something professional or $100 for the equivalent of a zip-lock bag). Once the class started, I realized that my hopeful, slow approach wasn't working. I had to order the discontinued case from an eBay seller in Australia.

The shipping charge was hard to swallow. But the case arrived today. So I should be able to start getting footage as I graduate from the intro class and start rowing with the masters team.

I wonder how many weeks it will take for my rowing blisters to be replaced by callouses? Next week they'll have a chance to heal while I'm in Maine building my oars at the Wooden Boat School.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Sippican Week

I was really happy to see that the community weekly, Sippican Week, ran an article about my project. Georgia Sparling, a writer who recently moved to the area, did a great job communicating a pretty complicated undertaking:

Artist pays homage to Mattapoisett ancestor with rowing project

By Georgia Sparling | Jul 30, 2012
portrait of Michael Waugh
Artist Michael Waugh plans to retrace his Mattapoisett ancestor's fatal boating trip, while exploring his working class roots.
MATTAPOISETT — Michael Waugh doesn’t know much about rowing, he isn’t familiar with water currents and he’s got tendonitis.
That would be unremarkable if he weren’t planning to row 20 miles Martha’s Vineyard to Mattapoisett Harbor in a homemade boat.
Waugh, a full-time artist based in New York City, has started a two-year project that will trace his great-great-great-great grandfather’s (yes, that's four greats) tragic last day in reverse.
On January 31, 1827, Waugh’s ancestor Gideon Dexter rowed out of the harbor on a stormy, icy night with his cousin to fetch his employer’s runaway skiff.
“It was clearly a bad idea,” said Waugh of his “working class” ancestor. “The storm is coming in, let the damn boat go.”
But as Dexter and his cousin chased the ship, in their individual boats, the wind blew them into Buzzard’s Bay. Both were killed.
“My ancestor was found the next morning with his oars shattered and his hands lacerated and frozen solid near Martha’s Vineyard,” said Waugh.
Now Waugh wants to relive this ill-fated expedition, sort of.
“This very tragic, personal story, has a larger economic truth to it, too,” said Waugh. “Working class people take risks that other people don’t. As part of his job, he died. Part of that is making a snap decision to try and save someone else’s property.”
Waugh wants to take Dexter’s journey in reverse. Instead of starting out at night, Waugh’s plan is to start in the morning. Instead of making a quick decision and rowing into the harbor unprepared, Waugh has a two-year plan.
“I’ll be in control of every aspect of it, from training my body to building the oars myself,” he said. “I’m trying to keep in the spirit of these working class origins.”
Waugh is going to document every step of the process in what is a new step in his career as a performance artist.
“This current project is more involved. I reached a point where I have a desire to go to the next level,” said Waugh, who's art is admittedly “hard to sound byte.”
In his previous work, for example creating poems from press releases on a street in New York City, Waugh combines text, performance and, usually, a video camera to record it all.
“I always try to make work where the immediate impression of it is very inviting and comfortable, so inviting and comfortable that you want to know more,” he said. “The more you know, the more you realize how complicated and involved it is.”
The artist’s work is usually political, combining “big ideas and individual lives.” Working in Mattapoisett’s shipping industry, Dexter’s individual death clearly coincided with the bigger economy.
Waugh, may not be tapping into the town’s shipping economy with his project, but he doesn’t plan to go it alone like Dexter.
“I can’t do it myself,” said Waugh. “Hopefully, I can meet boaters and rowers and people interested in the Bay who can help me, and on the day that I decide to do the event, there will be people with me.”
Waugh has already connected with the Buzzard’s Bay Coalition and is taking lessons from the New Bedford Community Rowing program (luckily rowing hasn’t bothered his tendonitis, so far). He will also craft his own oars this summer at a boat building nonprofit in Maine.
To fund the project, Waugh hopes to raise money through grants and an upcoming show featuring rowing-themed drawings. But Waugh knows getting grants could be an uphill battle.
“If you just keep waiting, you’ll never do it, so I’m just plunging in," he said.
Finishing the project in 2014 also has special significance for Waugh.
“Gideon Dexter died 66 days before his 47th birthday. The date I’ve set is 66 days before my 47th birthday. This project is meant to be,” he said.

To follow Michael Waugh’s progress, visit his blog Rowing Back at and see other examples of his work at

Monday, August 06, 2012


The rowing project, to which this blog is dedicated, had its genesis while I was spending much of my time In Mattapoisett, Massachusetts with my parents. My dad's various health issues were catching up with him. Twenty-five years ago, he had a septuple heart by-pass, then he had colon cancer, then he had testicular cancer. He survived them all and was grateful for the years that followed. But the last two years were hard. I'm grateful that, because I'm an artist, I can take my work anywhere. I was able to hang out with him and simply enjoy his company. But, of course, my work was effected.

My parents' house is the one in which my mom grew up. It was built by my great-great-great grandparents. And spending so much time there and reminded daily of my dad's mortality, I incorporated the presence of that house into my work. The emotional capital of that house is tremendous.

But while I was working on that body of work (the associated drawings of which you can see here), I was also reading a bit about my mom's family who'd lived in the house since 1850 and in Massachusetts since 1630. What survives from the earlier ancestors, for the most part, are wills. But there is the article with which I began this blog, the one recounting the death of my great-great-great-great grandfather, Gideon Dexter -- how he was blown out into Buzzards Bay and froze while desperately trying to row back home. It's no surprise that while my dad was working hard to stay with us (he was given two months to live and pulled it out to over two years), I saw the story of Gideon, rowing against the freezing storm, as an allegory. He was an Ur father, of sorts, and his struggle was that primal struggle to stay alive, and my response was that impossible desire to anchor those we love to this world and pull them back to us, whether that be to pull them back from the funk of a bad day or to pull them back from  serious illness.

My dad died on April 15th, tax day, a day that no one likes. We had his memorial yesterday. I took this picture (below) later in the day, when my brother, sister, mother, and my cousin went back to the cemetery to tend to the flowers. They are all standing near my father. The red flowers that you can see are each placed near the headstone of one of my ancestors. Gideon's headstone is on the left, and his father, and son are shown too. All together, the headstones of seven generations are in this frame. Gideon's grandfather is buried far behind where I took the picture, on the other side of the cemetery.

The graveside gathering was secular and fairly informal. My mom spoke, then my brother, then my sister. then me. This is what I read:

Cheap gas and cheap flights have made it relatively easy for us to travel hundreds or thousands of miles -- to gather briefly for the purpose of remembering my father, uncle Pete, Charles Ruggles Waugh -- but the ease of traveling vast distances spread us out in the first place. The living gathered here today have less physical community than the dead.  Within 20 feet of us, lay the remains of 7 generations. They lived, sequentially, but overlapping, as neighbors. That couldn't have been easy. The traits we share with family are just enough to facilitate profound irritation. Each summer, I watch as [my nephews] Ricky and Jaycee bicker incessantly just like [my brother] dave and I fought as kids. At some point in my 20s, I realized that the stubbornness and self-righteousness that got me so worked up about Dave were just as present --or even more present -- in me. I couldn't be an artist if I didn't believe on some deeply narcissistic level that my vision of the world is one that should matter to everyone else in the room. We are reflections of one another, though reflections distorted by fun house mirrors.

When I was three, my dad had his mother move in with us. Relating to Lyda was never easy:  I know where I got my self-righteousness. No relationship is easy. Yet through those 10 years that she lived with us, I learned that love is not a choice. When Lyda finally went into a nursing home, her memories unravelling to the point at which she thought she was a child again, my dad generously answered as her brother, or sister, or mother -- whatever role was needed. He did not need her to know it was him or if he was a man or a woman. He held her hand. I hold as one of my most salient visual memories, at the funereal home, my father tenderly stroking his mother's forehead and tracing one finger down the bridge of her nose.

While most of my friends grew up and spun further and further away from their families into communities of choice, growing up with my grandmother set the stage for an older way of living -- So when Ricky came along, it seemed totally natural for three generations to live under one roof. Ricky and Grampie got the chance to be buddies, picking up rocks, fixing broken toys, dissecting monster centipedes -- because doing chores together and poking at bugs together and learning together, even having breakfast together, is the genesis and embodiment of love.

My dad was always a person with the tenderest of hearts. He is the one who scooped up baby birds that had fallen out of their nests and fed them using tweezers. He sat by the bedside of every sick pet, stroking their fur and offering them water with an eye dropper. As he got older he always signed his emails "love dad"; when he went to bed he said "good night -- love you." Recently, he took to greeting and saying good bye with the sincerest of bear hugs. This was no hearty handshake, no chest bump or bro slap on the back. Dad had no patience for that macho crap.

As much as my dad believed in the healing powers of his tofu lunch, I believe that he lived an extra 25 great years as a cancer survivor because more and more he chose to embrace that sincerity, to engage compassionately as much as he could. Walking at the Mattapoisett wharf, he never hesitated to ask a fisherman about how often he needed to paint his boat's hull, or about bilge water regulations; if he asked you how you were doing, he expected an actual answer, not an empty "good." His compassion reached out to the buildings he repaired; he worried about them like children, and he wanted to have a little talk with every dog he met on the street during his morning walks with my mom. There is a popular philosophy that we should spurn connections, simplify our lives, throw out, start fresh. Dad did not subscribe to that philosophy. He would not throw out the unresponsive computer, or the broken hair clippers, or the useless cell phone charger, or the wobbly chair. They gave him good years -- and he might salvage a part. He engaged with these objects as they exist in this world -- he'd express mock outrage that the screw he used to fix the chair two years previous had worked its way out and plopped to the floor. But that's life, and having to re-fix things didn't depress him. Putting back those loose screws again and again kept him engaged. And this, too, is an embodiment of love.

I am glad that we can all be here in this cemetery; even though this is not a place any of us choose to be -- short or long term. This is a place that embodies history and connections and family. This is a place of love.