How a Boat Builders Shop Became the First Gallery on Martha's Vineyard

-From On The Waterfront Event

The building you are visiting today has attracted and inspired artistry for decades, first as the workshop of the gifted boatbuilder Manuel Swartz Roberts(1881-1963) and today as a workshop, training, and display space for Martha’s Vineyard artists, young and old.

Roberts’ craftsmanship, his wise and earnest hospitality, and his fine sense of what was beautiful and useful in the fishing catboats he designed, modeled, and built stirred the artistic impulse among his daily visitors and made a starting place for their own conceptions. The Martha’s Vineyard Art Association’s Old Sculpin Gallery does the same for painters and sculptors today. As it was then it is today, not only a place to find inspiration but a place to learn, to work, and ultimately to present the results to others for their judgments.

Roberts built catboats and other small craft, and he maintained the schooners and sloops that fished seasonally from Edgartown for groundfish, such as flounder, halibut, and cod, and for swordfish in summer. His catboats, handy, shoal, and capacious, were designed with shellfishermen who worked the island ponds in mind. One of Roberts’ cats, the Edwina B, may be inspected at the dock behind the Norton Boat House, across Dock Street from the gallery. What is now Memorial Wharf and nearby docks and buildings such as the Norton Boat House, were the home bases for the Vineyard fleet. Now a recreational harbor, it was in Roberts’ day a working waterfront serving fishermen from across the island, in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.


Bailey Norton, whose family boathouse on the waterfront across the street you may also visit, describes in his memoir My Long Journey Home, the scene in Roberts’ shop in the first half of the Twentieth Century:

“Whether morning or afternoon, upwards of half-a-dozen local men and visitors could be found at Manuel‘s engaged in lively discussions on virtually any topic. While these friendly debates were going on, Manuel toiled in the background single-handedly building a catboat while everyone in the shop would whittle away at a piece of pine scrap picked up off the floor.”

What’s now the Old Sculpin Gallery was built as a grain warehouse by Dr. Daniel Fisher. When Bailey Norton’s father bought the property in 1925, he removed several outbuildings and built the house just up the slope, now called the Anchors, home to the Edgartown Council on aging. Manuel Swartz Roberts’ boat shop succeeded the warehouse, and the gallery succeeded and extended Roberts’ link to the life of the town’s busy commercial waterfront. Today’s event will feature artifacts from Manuel Swartz Roberts’ shop; a collection of work by art association members that reminds us of the connections among the boat shop, the gallery, and the Edgartown waterfront; and work from students in the Old Sculpin Gallery’s art classes for children. 

The Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which has owned the building since 2005 and restored it for use by the gallery, has memorialized this inventive space that Manuel Swartz Roberts created a hundred years ago so that you may join us today On the Waterfront.

written by Doug Cabral