I was born under a lucky star. Not only did I grow up in a picturesque New England town, but for part of many summers my family explored coastal towns from Mass. to Maine by boat. I have in memory a cache of what I think of as my “summer towns,” those dreamy Brigadoons that can be called upon to flower in my mind even in the depths of winter cold.
One of my summer towns is Castine, Maine, where for twenty-nine years Noel and I taught at the Guild School’s annual “camp,” a gathering of miniaturists on the grounds of the Maine Maritime Academy.
I first visited Castine at approximately age 12 (when gas cost. 25, and we were singing nel blu di pinto di blu), the summer my parents chartered a sailboat to cruise the Maine coast. That first time, if memory serves me, we motored into the harbor in late afternoon to tie up alongside the town dock with its sun-bleached floats, mussel and seaweed-encrusted pilings, and long creaky gangway. At the top of the gangway stood a scenic, slightly seedy fried clam stand. From the first whiff I knew, before my mother spoke the words, that we would be breaking the “no snacking before meals” rule. Once we had loaded ice on the boat, found a guest mooring, and walked up the hill to buy milk, we sat on the pier and spoiled our dinner with plump, greasy, salty, heavenly fried clams. Scrolling forward 25 or so years to when Noel and I first visited Castine, there it stood in its latest incarnation—a recently renovated structure called The Breeze.
A few years down the road, about the time we were watching Frasier and humming Oldies, Noel suggested we build The Breeze for a class project. I thought, no way–we’d be trying to recreate a dream. Every visitor stops at The Breeze—for ice cream or a hot dog if they don’t hanker after clams. In a picture-postcard town of elm trees, tidy gardens and formal, white Federal-style homes, the commercial, weathered-shingle Breeze beckons from the town dock like an odd-duck cousin from the other side of the family. Yet, even for a food stand, it’s pretty plain. Away from its romantic harborside backdrop, The Breeze is just a shingled box with an awning, tin roof, and a catchy sign (and sometimes a lobster pot) on top. But everyone loves it. How would we ever make it look as good as a schmaltzy memory, the dreamy idea of it? And it presented so many unknowns–the awning would be a can of worms, and how would we make a tin roof that could be replicated by students?
We might have forgone the tin roof—in full-scale no one could really see the roof—but there was the additional feature of the metal siding on the back wall where the vent over the deep fat fryers dripped its greasy residue. In both cases the metal was a practical solution as well as an interesting architectural feature. In miniature the ribbed metal would add texture, interest, and something new to age.
The solution came from our friend Rick, the local printer. Over the years, we visited Rick in the back of his shop while he inked-up and loaded the press with thin aluminum printing plates. Rick had a way of rattling the plates like thunder sheets as punctuation for his corny jokes, and a penchant for saying, “You ought to be able to use this stuff for your miniatures. How about aluminum siding? How about a trailer, or a Quonset hut?” With The Breeze in mind, Noel brought home a sheet for a trial run, and found it to be just the thing for the project.
The material was Western Linotech 16” X 17 ½” aluminum printing plates, thickness 006, Aqualith-D-SC (probably as scarce now as Royal typewriter ribbons, but worth the search). We paid $2.00 a sheet, which may have been wholesale, but they would have been a bargain at twice the price. The plates were pliable, and thin enough to cut with an Exacto knife. Another advantage was that one side was shiny, the other dulled white, giving you a choice of finishes. For this project we used the dull side out. (For another application, the shiny side, when buffed with 4/0 steel wool looks like stainless steel.) What I describe below is not dictum, but rather a description of how we used the material. Because it was so easily cut, moldable, and easy to paint (on the dull side) it is adaptable for many uses.
Using our project roof dimensions as a guide, we decided three horizontally laid sections—each 5” wide X 3 ¾” deep–of roofing would look best, with the two end sections folding over the ends and bottom of the 1/8” doorskin sub-roof, and the one in the middle folding at the bottom edge. We cut the metal using a metal T-square and Exacto knife, first by scoring the metal, then folding it over the table edge—down, then up—to break it along the score. This produced a cleaner, straighter edge than cutting it through with the knife.
To simulate ribbed roofing, Noel scored the underside with a 1/32” nail set and T-square. He placed each section shiny-side up on a mat board, and scored the lines at ½” intervals. Scoring makes the metal curl, so he first taped the edges to the mat board, scoring through the tape. Once scored, the sections were un-taped, and the upward curve flattened by rolling the metal gently in the opposite direction.
To simulate roofing nails on the edges, Noel again used the 1/32” nail set, laying the roof sections shiny-side up on the mat board, then tapping the end of the nail set with a hammer into the metal, making a bulge, not a hole. He chose to place a nailhead at the base of each of the ribs because it looks right, though it may not be the way a real roof would be done. To enhance the look of the nailheads, he then turned over the finished pieces on the mat board, and tapped each bulge lightly with the hammer. This not only flattens the nailheads, but convincingly dimples the surrounding metal, making, as a Noel says, “ a nice reverse pucker.”
The scored edges of each section were then folded down over the roof edges by pressing them with the rounded Exacto knife handle. Next, they were glued down with Elmer’s and pressed onto the roof. The glued edges were again burnished down with the Exacto handle, and the whole thing was taped down with masking tape. To keep the aluminum flat while drying, he flipped the whole roof section and laid it flat on the work table, and weighting it down with bricks. He then made the ¼” flashing strips to cover the seams between sections using the same methods as above.
Depending on the imagined age of the project, various aging methods can be applied. For The Breeze, the metal was fairly new. We didn’t anticipate how shiny the cut edges would look—they had to be darkened with black felt pen. It didn’t blacken them, but dulled the shine enough to neutralize the overabundant reflection of light. We also applied minimal dirty water washes (using Grumbacher tube acrylics in Mars Black, warmed with a little Raw Umber, mixed with water) over the matte white surface. Noel would later use a lot more of this mix to sufficiently grunge-up the greasy back wall around and under the vent.
Another roof detail would be to tease a little “rust” into the metal surrounding the nail heads and flashing seams. Rust equals a mix of Grumbacher Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna touched in with a small (#4) watercolor round brush. Being careful not to exaggerate, some rust could be made to “drip” downhill from the nails and seams. The idea with all aging is to suggest, leaving room for the viewer room to imagine the rest. As in music and poetry, the silences make the difference. Time after time, we had to stop ourselves from overdoing a technique that was working well—you don’t want the viewer to notice the artist’s hand in the picture, just be convinced of the illusion of what they are seeing.
Of course, I don’t remember, really, how The Breeze (or its predecessor) looked when I was a child—I was more interested in that red and white paper box mounded with fresh fried clams. What I do remember was the idea of the food stand, and the exotic allure of food that would never be served at home. To me, The Breeze embodied what was great about summer—an escape, eating outside, the creosote-y/seaweedy smell of the dock, gulls bickering from the pilings for scraps, clear, cold blue water and green islands. On returning to the Castine dock for the first time as an adult, I had to order fried clams right away, even though it was 10:00 in the morning. Sitting on that pier 25 years later, eating clams, I was transported. For a moment all my senses were awake, absorbing as they’d absorbed in childhood. For a moment dreams of summer were true. In reality the clams were, well, greasier, but still, they carried the taste of all good summers.