Last winter around a table, for what Oprah would call a “legend’s lunch,” sat a collection of the Caribbean’s most notorious old salts. Members of the gathered group had, for nearly four decades, lived more lives than a herd of cats while dreaming, sailing and working boats.
The spontaneous meeting of like minds came about on the day that artist, singer, songwriter, teacher, sailor David Wegman made landfall in one of the spots he calls home, Coral Bay, St. John.
That’s where his Cowhorn Schooner, African Queen IV, got its start; the hull Wegman purchased, finished, rigged and sailed hard. First, up and down the islands from Key West to Grenada for nine years, then all the way around the world—without an engine.
Wegman’s sailing story stretches back to 1971 to a first boat that, job by job, brought him from Florida to the lagoon in St. Thomas. There, he made and sold jewelry and small sculptures hand-crafted using the method of lost wax casting. In the lagoon that decade, David teamed up with nine other sailors to purchase one hundred acres on an island in the middle of a Maine lake. The group built a clubhouse and ten eclectic, artistic houses. One of them is another place David calls home.
“Every summer for thirty years I take my kids there. We‘re all a big family,” he explained with a smile on his face. “We’ve had kids and now some of the kids have kids.”
A few years later Wegman sailed to St. Barths with a set of pastels onboard but not much money. He put together what he had, talent and art supplies, and created a group of images that were exhibited at the infamous Autour du Rocher where all found buyers immediately. That success led to a commission by the proprietor of Le Select’s hamburger stand, Eddie Stakelborough. A sign for “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” launched a brand for Le Select along with thousands of t-shirts and a friendship that led to yet another place Wegman calls home.
When Eddie moved out of his room above Le Select, Wegman moved in with paints, silkscreen materials, sculpting tools and a host of musical instruments that occupy the space to this day. A lot of zany, successful designs have emerged from that small space; t-shirts like “Pirate’s Ball,” and “Nothing Serious Regatta,” along with some of his finest paintings.
He put together a cruising kitty, his new boat, African Queen IV and in 1989, left the Caribbean for what would become an eight year circumnavigation. Many of those miles were solo, some with his ever growing family. It wasn‘t a hand-to-mouth existence but one of hand-to-brush. “I had some of my silk screens on board so I made t-shirts along the way and pen and ink drawings of boats I met. And my paintings, sometimes I sold them,” he explained. “I always figured out how to do something; how to make some money.”
After the circle closed, Wegman was invited to join the teaching team at St. John’s Omega Institute held at the eco-friendly Maho Bay. He came up with a plan to share his skills of turning trash into treasure, the abstract into art. “I show people how to put things together using glues, latex paint, anything they have but nothing high tech.” He demonstrates the framework of combining found objects; seeds, driftwood, stuff from the dumpsters. “You wouldn’t believe what I find in St. John’s dumpsters!” he announced enthusiastically. Before students chose their classes they listen to introductions from the instructors. “I tell them I’m looking for people who are told they have no artistic talent and I want to prove them wrong. You know, if you put enough energy into something, like the guitar, you’ll learn to play.”
He would know—since he never played music until the age of 25. “I made up my mind I was going to do that. I started with a harmonica, trained my ear; got a violin, then a banjo and a guitar. Now I play a cello and mandolin.” He plays them very well. The lyrics to his tunes inspire thought and laughter; they’re the stories of a life well lived. Like the titles, “Out Where the Busses Don’t Run” and “I Ain’t Ja Momma” that, David explains, “Just come up. I see something and know it’d make a great song. They kind of come up from paintings and sculptures.”
There are other havens in the world that Wegman calls home but probably none as extraordinary as African Queen IV. Guests board by stepping over a sign stating “Rich and Famous Only.” On deck and down below, bits and pieces of the vessel were sculpted into appealing shapes and figures, paintings wedge into nooks, and a colorful assemblage of found objects and collected treasures fill every space. It is, like its owner, a one-of-a-kind artistic expression, a work in progress, a legend of the Caribbean Sea.
The art of David Wegman can be found in St. Barths in and around Le Select and during annual exhibits at the Bagdhad Gallery. In St. John, head to Tall Ships in Coral Bay to find t-shirts, prints, originals and sculptures. www.artistspace.com/davidwegman/davidwegman.html
Jan Hein divides her time between Washington State and a small wooden boat in the Caribbean.