We first met at the Portland Yacht Boat Show. As my friend and I walked around I noticed this guy sitting alone at a table by the exit. It seemed rather odd. Maybe he was waiting for someone.
On our way back inside the boat show I noticed that guy was still sitting by himself. As I started to walk by his table something caught me eye. I pivoted back to find out what it was. Upon my approach, he opened a booklet and showed me his drawings. Then, told me all about the project he was working on. I found the whole thing fascinating.
We talked for about 15 minutes then swapped business cards as more people finally stopped to hear his story. We promised to keep in touch and schedule a visit to his studio.
His name is Jay Sawyer and lives in Warren Maine. The drawings were a rendition of a memorial he wanted to erect for the 33 men and women who lost their lives on the El Faro cargo ship October 1, 2015, during Hurricane Joaquin.
When I first arrived at Jay’s studio (Studio JBone), he had a huge steel sphere sitting on the back of his truck. He was so excited about it. As Jay talked his excitement grew. He insisted it was one more sign from the universe.
Jay’s always been creative since he was a kid and interested in spheres. “This is a cool twist,” says Jay. “Because being a merchant marine and working the 12am to 4am watch on a ship, I’d be out there in the wee hours of the morning thinking of these to pass the time.” If he had a good oiler he could go into the shop and pass time by making things in the engine room a little more user friendly such as reach rods and removable deck plates. Other times he would be thinking of how he could make a sphere without realizing that’s what he was thinking. To him it was more like an orb. When Jay looks back on those days, he didn’t even have a notion of being a sculptor or artist. It wasn’t in his vocabulary.
Jay’s thought process is all based on the universe. Lots of times he’s picking up on little signals that gives him a head start. He’ll tell you it’s taken him 56 years to figure things out and to listen to the universe. Plus, pick up on what it is presenting to him. All this to create his designs. According to Jay, it is truly transformational and the pivotal turning point in his life. He feels as if the whole world is celebrating his sobriety with alcohol. His first art show was 2007 and he quit drinking in 2012. Since then, he counts his blessings every day and feels a sense of responsibility to do these sculptures.
As we walked around his property my mind immediately went to The Trogg’s song: “Love is All Around”.
I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes
Love that’s all around me, And so the feeling grows.
Various sculptures are everywhere. You can feel the love that Jay’s put into these pieces, each one with its own story. For example, one piece he made for his wife, Karen when her father passed away. To Jay, working on that piece helped him heal and he felt putting it in a special spot in the back yard gave Karen a place to heal also. Another piece Jay created was in honor of his own father who died when he was young.
It’s written on the wind, It’s everywhere I go, oh yes it is
So if you really love me, Come on and let it show.
Jay was 15 years old when he started drinking and he knew that first night it was an issue, yet he still drank. He was 50 years old when he quit. Jay drank a lot on bad days and he drank a lot on good days, too. Today he counts his blessings that he didn’t just put the drink down, he had enough! He’s got his sculpting and its more important. “I get a buzz off this,” says Jay. “And it replaces the drink.”
All this time, the universe kept putting different sculptors into his path. For example: Bernard Langlais, John Ames, Marylin Quint-Rose, Roger Majoriwicz, and close friend and mentor – David McLaughlin, to name a few.
One last healing piece in the yard is a memorial to his past called the Drunken Sailor. And so, too, the universe once again nudged Jay to do something for his fellow seafarers’ families to continue processing their loss.
After that horrific event of the El Faro sinking, all the memories came floating back. Jay had been out of the shipping industry for 25 years. Hurricane Joaquin brought back all the scary thoughts and imaginations he had as a young seafarer himself. He had been in lots of different marine casualties like fires and collisions. Storms get your mind wondering why you’re going into it rather than around it. Jay was an engineer during his time at sea and depended on the deckhands. There were many nights he tossed around from all the rolls wondering if the ship would ever right itself. “It was scary and leaves you vulnerable,” exclaimed Jay. “You’ve given everything up and you’ve got nothing but hope left.”
Then he heard the stories of Dylan Oke Meklin, age 23 being on his first ship and first trip after graduation. The fact that Meklin’s close in age to Jay’s son and from Rockland, Maine didn’t help. Jay could easily look back because he remembered the first time he hung his license in the rack. “It’s a life event and how high your are, what you’ve achieved,” says Jay. “And you know that’s a big step.” Then to reflect on Tuesday at suppertime to never see the sun come up Thursday morning and everything Meklin experienced in between was huge. Obviously, Jay’s got sympathy for every person on that ship and every story is horrific to hear.
Shortly after October 1st Jay started getting asked if anyone reached out to him for a sculpture memorial. People in Rockland felt he was the right person to do this. He also knew it was going to be something – just not sure what. A monument with a plaque was respectful and legitimate but it didn’t feel right. He spoke to a lot of the families openly and all the ones in Maine came to his home/studio to meet him. He wanted to earn their trust before going public with any ideas he had. He didn’t want anyone to feel exploited. Ground zero for him was here in Rockland because two of the officers lived here: 34-year-old Danielle Randolph and Dylan Meklin. There were 100 reasons to do this in Rockland. Jay was born in Rockland and he already had artwork here. If he was going all in and being passionate about a memorial, it had to be accessible by big numbers of people. He believed people would travel long distances to visit here.
This project started out to be a legacy of the crew to memorialize them. To help the families with their grief – help them heal. The fundraising for this project taught Jay how widespread the effects were in the industry. And, that these people have the same thoughts as him. They toss and turn at night, get frustrated, mad and sad. Donations from the East, West, and Gulf coasts validate that. It’s hopeful this memorial could prevent another disaster. We may never know.
He’d like to think it will. It’s not about blame or anything negative, it’s about legacy, and promoting healing. Plus, the awareness for the whole industry. That’s huge, just not the motivating factor. Besides the story, it’s also the placement of the memorial. If the timing is right and it’s a nice clear day and somebody is in the Penobscot Bay visiting, there’s a real good chance they’re going to look out and see the shipping traffic on their way up to Bucksport or beyond. Hopefully, it will increase awareness which is why it’s perfect for the mission of the Propeller Club, Maine, Boston, and Portland Marine Societies also. He thinks a lot of good on many levels can come from this. Plus, it becomes a piece of art for the whole Rockland community.
A lot of families live close to the memorial in Jacksonville, Florida. Unfortunately, it’s a long way to go for the families in the Northeast. Hence, the need to have one up north. One parent in New York refers to the two memorials as bookends on the East Coast.
The drawings Jay showed me at the show had a man and woman sailor standing at the stern saluting.
The male and female’s body, hands, and uniform renderings are all life size. They stand behind the stern and when you look into those portals your mind begins to wander.
The Penobscot Museum is the fiscal sponsor so contributions can be tax deductible. This museum is the oldest Maritime Museum in Maine which is only fitting. To donate go to https://Penobscot-Marine-Museum.Square.Site/donations and scroll halfway down the page to the El Faro Salute line.
Or you can snail mail a check to: Penobscot Marine Museum, PO Box 498, Searsport, Maine 04974. Make sure you add El Faro Salute in the memo line.
Last, but not least you can call and give your credit card number over the phone at 207-548-2529.
The dedication is set for Saturday, September 24, 2022 at 1:00pm ET. It takes place at Rockland Harbor Trail, South End in Rockland Maine on Atlantic Street.