The history of the fleet in portraits

May 24, 2023 | Charting the Past

Steve Kennedy’s talent is well-known on the docks and beyond.

By Doreen Leggett

In the 1980s, Alex Brown was in the West End of Provincetown when he met a fellow who, finding out Brown was a fisherman, started talking. The man’s name was Steve Kennedy.

Brown asked him if he was any relation to the noted photographer and painter of the same name. Brown said he had an oil painting by Kennedy of the well-known Provincetown fishing dragger Barracuda – she had a red, toothy mouth painted on her green hull – hanging in his living room.

As it turns out, Kennedy was the man in question.

The two have kept in touch, Kennedy asking questions about certain boats he is either painting or photographing. Kennedy is interested in the story of a boat, where she has been, what she has seen, who captained her, what her names have been.

“He doesn’t just take pictures,” said Brown. “He is like an archivist. He’ll find out Kenny Macara owned it and he’ll look it up and find she was built in Brewster by Steve Eldredge.”

Sitting with Kennedy on a recent spring day, it’s clear his knowledge of boats is encyclopedic.

“David Dutra ran the Richard Arnold; I was talking with him one day, the subject of Plymouth Belle came up.  He said ‘that boat had a proud bow.’ I loved that. Joe Stephen’s boat – it had two dories on the roof. It was like a work of art.”

“The Little Marie, she was a tiny thing, a steel western rig.”

“The Liberty, she was a western rig, but rigged as a side trawler.”

“Lemon Twist, Ocean Bird, Stanley K, Golden Arrow, Lillian C, all wooden boats from Wellfleet. The Columbia and the Jupiter were big New Bedford eastern rigs, used to come in once in a while to tie up at Provincetown. There were a lot of cool boats back in those days.

“The Tremont was a neat boat, built in the ‘60s in Wisconsin. Worked out of Boston, then went to Alaska, was acquired by a New Bedford fisherman a few years ago, came back to New Bedford and Boston via Panama Canal- amazing. Her last captain never wanted to leave in the daytime. The boat collided with a container ship and sank last year, had been through so much, hated to see that boat go. But they got everybody off, that counts more than anything.”

Kennedy has painted dozens of fishing boats and has more than 100,000 photographs, but they weren’t what woke the artist in him.

“I grew up within earshot of a stock car track. I loved going there,” said Kennedy.

Living in Connecticut in the late 1960s, when he was around 11 his dad put a camera in his hand and Kennedy started photographing. He was enthralled with how he could capture a moment forever and has been taking photos ever since.

Although he didn’t start shooting fishing boats until decades later, he had always been connected to the industry.

“My grandfathers on both sides were lobstermen,” Kennedy said. “Although one was more of a broker.” They were Down Easters, from the Milbridge/Beals Island area.

Kennedy spent time at his grandparent’s house on the waterfront in South Portland, Maine. One of his earliest memories is being fascinated by the comings and goings of the ships across the harbor, and of abandoned boatyards on either side of the family house, begging exploration by young minds.  There was a sunken schooner at one of the yards, which he could never quite reach.  Another early influence was a Freddie Peterson painting of fishing trawlers that hung in the house.

Kennedy attended the Paier College of Art in Hamden, Connecticut for fine and studio art, but realized that en plein air, painting from life, was more his style.

“I didn’t want to paint inside much,” he said.

Kennedy’s family eventually bought property in Brewster, though he doesn’t remember visiting the ports across the Cape in his youth.

“I regret I didn’t spend more time back then exploring the waterfront,” he said.

In 1981, he spent his first winter on the Cape:

“I came out here and didn’t leave. I remember a buddy of mine said, ‘You should start painting boats. It will make you feel like you are on Cape Cod.’”

One of the first boats he painted was the Patty Ann in Rock Harbor, Orleans, that became sort of a “muse” for him until he returned one day and she was gone.

Kennedy kept painting and photographing fishing boats. He sometimes reflects on why – he could have painted tugboats or sailboats.

“Fishing is a bit more personal than shipping. There is more of a sense of community,” he said. “You get to know the characters and their idiosyncrasies.”

He felt there was a sense of beauty with the commercial vessels and the ports:

“As an artist I became very concerned with accuracy, getting vessel shapes and proportions correct. I wanted fishermen to be able to tell which boat I was painting without benefit of a name on the bow. Customers in Provincetown particularly enjoyed collecting these paintings, which featured the last hurrah of the wooden boats. I also painted in places like Rock Harbor (Orleans), Stage Harbor (Chatham) and Wellfleet. Many of the vessels I painted are gone now, like old friends you no longer see.”

Kennedy also began taking photos of many working boats in Cape harbors around the same time. He was especially interested in Provincetown. He’s been creating an extensive record of what’s been going on around the Cape since the early 1980s.

“I think it is an important slice of history,” Kennedy said. “I like the idea of being involved in something much bigger than myself.”

Lisa King, daughter and sister of fishermen, said capturing the fleet is important. She has photos going back hundreds of years that she shares on her Facebook page, “Provincetown: A Fishing Village,” which Kennedy contributes to. He also manages “Commercial Fishing Boats of New England” and regularly posts commercial boats to his personal page.

“It’s important to record the history of the town, which is the fleet,” said King.

Kennedy’s and King’s posts share history, and spark other stories. For example, King said when Plymouth Colony was established, Provincetown fishermen paid a tax on their landings to fund schools all over the colony.

Kennedy also collects older pictures of the fleet.

“I’m a hunter, I feel (kinship) with fishermen in that sense,” he said.

Kennedy’s work captures the current day, “the 80s through today. There isn’t anything quite like what I’ve done,” he said. “I have photos of hundreds of boats, now gone. Photography is the perfect tool for recording history. Wish I was around in the 40s through the 60s!”

With digital technology, he has been able to take many more pictures with less expense – no more rolls of film, or processing.

When wooden boats began to disappear, his work took on greater importance. The ports themselves changed as well.

“Provincetown was a great place to hang around and take pictures,” he said. “It was a classic scene. People loved to look at a mast behind Long Point and guess what boat was coming in. Before the finger piers were installed, boats would raft together. It was pretty picturesque, though fishermen weren’t fond of it.”

Kennedy could also see the ebb and flow of the fisheries, how it ramped up after the 200-limit, how today when Gulf of Maine opens to scallopers a parade of boats comes down from Maine, how some of his favorite subjects were sold off during a buyback program.

He also began pairing images with stories, which have run in Commercial Fisheries News for more than two decades. At one point he covered a new boat every month for about a year. His paintings have shown in Kiley Court Gallery on the Cape and Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, (now closed)- among many other places.

He is known to lie in wait for eight or more hours at a time to capture specific vessels. ‘Just part of the job description,’ he says.

“I’m kind of like shore support,” he said. “And haven’t slowed down yet.”


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