Anchor at Fairfield Museum:
Southport craftsman James Wiser’s
ship models highlighted
(Posted to Fairfield Citizen News 3/14)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – So authentic and detailed were the ship models on display that you could almost hear the cries of shipmates, crash of waves over bows and the groan and creak of the rigging.
The models, four of a collection painstakingly created by Southport craftsman James Wiser, were part of a new exhibit that opened Saturday March 12 in the gallery lobby of the Fairfield Museum and History Center at 370 Beach Road. The exhibit, titled “From Sea to Shining Sea” and on view until April 24, celebrates the rich maritime history of Fairfield County and Wiser’s artistry.
The models on display include the Kate Cory, Hancock, Bonhomme Richard and the Sultana, and each was tagged with some historical background.
The Kate Cory was a 75-foot long whaler built in Westport, MA in 1856 for Alexander Cory, a leading local merchant. After five successful voyages, she was captured off the coast of Brazil during the Civil War and burned in 1863.
The Hancock was a Revolutionary War-era frigate commanded by Capt. John Manley of the Continental Navy. She was captured in 1777 and put into service for the British Navy. It took Wiser almost a year to assemble the model’s 4,300-plus pieces.
The Bonhomme Richard, a 40-gun warship, was captained by John Paul Jones. It sank in 1779 after a sea battle. Wiser constructed the model’s hull from more than 1,000 pieces of maple.
The Sultana was a 50-foot schooner built in Boston, MA in 1767. While constructed for a merchant, she was bought by the Royal Navy to monitor Colonial shipping.
Almost every day for the past sixty years, Wiser, now 89, can be found in his Southport studio sitting at his workbench working on a boat model. Surrounding him are the tools of his craft: files, tiny drills, tweezers, glues, saws, scalpels, pots of paint, exotic woods and books on naval and maritime history. His body of work spans 4,500 years of maritime history.
Wiser often tells a funny story about his devotion to the craft. “When I was courting my wife, my mother said to her, ‘Norma, if you want to keep him happy, give him something to do with his hands.’ I think she took that the wrong way, as she didn’t know I like to build things. It nearly wrecked our marriage.”
Wiser keeps a notebook to record time and progress on each model. He can spend 800 hours or more on a single ship. After conducting extensive research on a particular ship’s history, he carves each piece from scratch, from hull to crew, in one-eighth inch-to-the-foot (1:96) scale.
Wiser’s interest in constructing things began as a child. “I used to go to camp and do Indian headdresses and then airplane kits with balsa wood,” Wiser said. “All that got me started. Now, towards the end of my life, I look for a challenge I haven’t had before. For instance, I just completed a 54-foot long gunboat. The ship could be rowed or sailed and the mast could be collapsed. I’d never done a model like that. There must be 70 or 80 models I’ve created over time. Some were sold, others given away. My grandchildren will get the rest.”
In addition to the models, the museum exhibit includes examples of Wiser’s tools and wood options. There are also framed paintings of the schooner Edna, built in Black Rock in 1849, and the clipper ship William Chamberlain, shown sailing off the coast of Newfoundland in 1861.
Equally remarkable in the exhibit is an extremely rare map of the coasts of New England and Nova Scotia, created in the early 1700s by Cyprian Southack, a Boston-based sea captain and privateer. The map was carefully restored for the exhibition.
Southack’s map is a nod to Thomas Jefferson, who, 200 years ago, initiated the Coast Survey, a predecessor agency of today’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Jefferson recognized the importance of charting the country’s navigable waterways and ports, which were vital to the prosperity of the economy and security of our then-fledgling nation.
Enjoying the ship models was Fairfield resident Linda McCormack and her grandson Colin Daly, 3. “I know Mr. Wiser and his wife Norma, who worked with me at Pequot Library years ago,” said McCormack. “I first saw his beautiful displays at the library and wanted to introduce my grandson to his workmanship. The intricacy of the models and talent it takes is remarkable.”
Southport resident Will Rhame was also impressed with the models. “I’d heard that Wiser does amazing work,” he said. “I don’t think people appreciate how difficult it is to do this. I’m a sailor so the exhibit has particular interest. It’s so meticulous. Look how he coiled the ropes, and the rigging and cannonballs. I don’t think I’d have the patience to do this.”
Visiting from New Hampshire, Carolyne Brewer, with Jamie Childs, agreed with Rhame. “The craftsmanship is very impressive,” she said. “I think if I was working on it and made a mistake, I’d throw it against the wall.”