Looking at Victor Hempel’s carved creations, it’s difficult to fathom how he knew there was a giant crab lying within a hunk of neem or that a sea turtle lurked inside a piece of star coral. His artistic insight is extraordinary but even more amazing is that he possesses the ability to free those and other animals from nature’s mundane castoffs.
Hempel’s workshop is a bit tricky to find since it’s a 30ft steel sloop floating with the seasons throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas. Packed aboard, he has all the gear required of a cruising boat but squeezed in with it are tools and tricks needed for his carving endeavors.
Chisels, Dremels, angle grinders, a Foredom, various sanding devices and, of course, a chain saw fill precious space.
Lashed to the back deck is a slab of mahogany; below are hunks of lignum vitae, tamarind, neem wood, mahogany. Tucked everywhere are bits of flotsam and jetsam that talent will turn from trash to treasure.
Aboard that vessel, fish floats become carved lanterns; palm fronds grow fins; driftwood reincarnates into life from the sea.
Sailing wasn’t always in Hempel’s life although he says “the ocean was always in me.” Born and raised in South Africa, his early years on the sea were spent fishing with his father. At 14, a surfboard entered the picture sparking a love-affair that continues to this day. And in his 20s, the idea of living on a cruising boat inspired him to chase one down.
He was living in a surf commune, working as a self-taught frame maker and bonsai gardener, when an offer to crew on a catamaran popped up. Without hesitation, the business was sold, surf board and bag packed and off he sailed to Cape Town. There, he jumped on another vessel that set off but inadvertently broke up in 20ft seas, depositing Hempel in the desert of Namibia.
“The desert wasn’t a great place to go,” Hempel explained with a smile. “But our other option was Angola!” After four days of hitch-hiking, he returned to Cape Town, boat-less but not for long.
The third vessel was a charm. A Roberts 45 carried Hempel across the Atlantic, to Brazil, Tobago and Trinidad. There, his career as crew and delivery skipper began and flourished with sailboats, mega yachts, even a stint on Steve Fossett’s Play Station, the 125ft racing cat.
After a few years of boat hopping, enough money was hoarded to purchase a 30ft Snowbird design built in British Columbia and it was on this boat that a passion for sculpting began. “I tinkered with carving, making necklaces. I sold them to the mega crew,” he said.
A serendipitous voyage to Rum Cay in the Bahamas changed the size and scope of his work. The marina owner, also a carver, invited Hempel to use the workshop. A marina guest, who happened to be the seven year world champion chainsaw carver, recognized Hempel’s keen eye and invited him to Pennsylvania for mentoring.
When Hemple returned to Rum Cay, he decided to give his tools a rigorous workout on star coral. “It’s dead coral from underground. The size and weight is not good to carry on a little boat,” he explained, jokingly. The result, though, was stunning.
In Luperon, a commission came to sculpt two totem poles in Iroquois Indian style. Named ‘The
Keeper of the Trees’, they were massive in size and inspired other pieces that didn’t quite fit on a small yacht.
A log of almond wood was scored from Anguilla’s salt pond. He lashed it on deck for a sail to Dominica where he put on the design. In Grenada, under a sea grape tree on the beach, the carving began. And in Tortola, it was completed at the back of Aragorn’s Trellis Bay shop. Now the rounded little people that came out of the wood climb toward the ceiling of Anguilla’s Savannah Gallery living out the name, ‘Greeting the Morning Sun’.
If Victor Hempel’s in the anchorage you just might catch him hauling home a load of nature’s castaways, a warm smile on his tanned face and a glint of excitement in his artistic eyes.
Jan Hein and her husband, artist Bruce Smith, divide their time between the Caribbean the Pacific Northwest with a boat and a life at each end: www.brucesmithsart.com