From schooners to Noah's ark, 'New Ships' takes sail with imagination

I wonder if anyone builds models anymore. When I pass the plastic kits for cars and ships in the drugstore, I remember my uncle snapping off parts and gluing together aircraft carriers. The love of the miniature must be an adult thing. Children rarely tend to dollhouses the way adults do; the grown-ups hover and fuss over the maintenance of the chambers, just as they worry over ship models and lift them to out-of-reach shelves.

John Taylor, an artist showing at Garde Rail Gallery in Columbia City, brings the lost obsession with ship replicas out of the hobbyist's sphere and into an artistic one.

Taylor builds his ships (3 to 5 feet long) with scraps of roof, netting, stamps, shutters, old pieces of wood cut in finger lengths and laid along the arc of the boats; sometimes he adds a scrap of a computer, some little chunk of motherboard. Inside the cabins, he coils little Christmas lights.

Since Taylor assembles his vessels with found, recycled materials, they look like worn versions of historic schooners, riverboats, steamers and World War I hospital ships. Besides the wood, Taylor notes, "Everything else is tin, copper, braising rods, painted wood, ink. Plumbing and electrical parts are good, and especially anything found in the road that's been hit by cars a thousand times."

Taylor worked from photographs to create the ships, and their scale takes on a heft that is larger than most ship models. Like dollhouses, these draw the eye inward. But it's not a joy of roaming the interior that satisfies here — instead, the tactile exteriors compelled me. They don't look like glossy, nostalgic replicas. They look more like boats aging in the imagination of the artist.

"I want to make the ship(s) as material as I can," Taylor writes in the gallery notes. (Taylor wrote beautiful descriptions of each, in contrast with the jargon-in-a-blender notes one might find at other art exhibits.) "I want people to feel how thick and rough the hull is, how weather-beaten the wood is, how there is a tangle of pipes and railings and doors and windows, and within that an underlying order of rope lines and cabins."

Because the ships aren't models of what they were like new, or even in high glory, they feel more like artistic interpretations. The aged, rough-hewn feel is, ultimately, an authentic rendition of memory rather than historical accuracy.

Here, Taylor deviates from replica fanatics and hobbyists.

While hobbies create predictable, pre-defined things (a model of a ship, a paint-by-number canvas or a pre-patterned hand-knit sweater), artistic work has unexpected layers that rail against traditional results. If a hobby is making the expected thing, art is making the surprising, novel thing. Taylor's ships are refreshingly haunting in their deviation from the historical.

Since Garde Rail is a place for the "self-taught, outsider and folk art," Taylor's work does not come with a résumé attached. Part of me wants to cheer about the notion of "outsider art," especially when I see work like this. Artists who don't have an art-school pedigree and who haven't shown in high-end galleries do seem "outside" the traditional framework of acceptance. On the other hand, the movement of "outsider" art can look like a wave of hobbyists. Or artists whom promoters insist are hobbyists.

Taylor describes his work this way: "Honestly, I don't really know why I began making these ships, when I will stop making them or where I am going with them. In terms of woodwork, I really have nothing more than your typical eighth-grade woodshop." As an "outsider," Taylor has four children and a full-time job as a landscape architect.

In this show, one piece protrudes from Taylor's typical historic range. He's built his own version of Noah's ark. Blocky, wood-laden and far from seaworthy, the structure could be a modernist swipe at the biblical. Rows of little windows line the wood, and one can imagine pairs of animals struggling to breathe through them on their rough passage to dry ground. Like Taylor's other ships, it's a beautiful act of imagination.

John Taylor, "New Ships"

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through July 27, Garde Rail Gallery, 4860 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; 206-721-0107.