All in the name of craft

Brushwork: Many boaters rely on computers, but one woman builds her following by painting names by hand.

March 25, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

With the warm afternoon sun beating down and a slight breeze sending a ripple through the waters of Annapolis' Back Creek yesterday, a petite, wiry woman was on her knees in the cockpit of a 34-foot sailboat, leaning over the stern to gently brush on the midnight-blue letters of its name.

Cindy Fletcher-Holden, with her tie-dyed tank top, wild red hair and paint-splattered jeans, scarcely looks the part of a traditionalist. Yet she is one of a handful of artists along the Chesapeake Bay between Baltimore and Southern Maryland who cling to the art of painting boat names by hand in an age where computer-generated, slap-on vinyl letters that take minutes to apply have become the norm.

"In the old days, hand-painting boat names was really common," said Fletcher-Holden, 39, who lives in Annapolis' Eastport community. "Now, it truly is a dying art."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's editions incorrectly reported that artist Cindy Fletcher-Holden learned to paint names on boats at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. She learned the craft at Accent Graphics in Annapolis.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Marina managers say the number of artists such as Fletcher-Holden has dwindled in the past 20 years as some died and others traded in their special-ordered brushes -- made of gray squirrel hair -- for computers and rolls of vinyl.

Luke Frey, service manager at Hartge Yacht Yard in Galesville, said that when he started in the yacht-repair business 20 years ago, there were at least 20 artists in the area who plied the name-painting trade. Of the six such artists remaining in the region, Frey said, Fletcher-Holden is one of the best and the youngest. Most of her counterparts are in their 50s and 60s.

"There's not too many young people getting into this," Frey said. "There's the easier route of computer-generated signs. It's easier to press a button than to get out on a boat, stay out in the hot sun and spend hours painting a name."

Fletcher-Holden learned to paint boat names at Maryland Insitute, College of Art. She graduated in 1983 with a degree in classical painting and took a job at Accent Graphics, an Annapolis sign shop. She didn't choose the craft as her career until she left Annapolis in 1985 to sail the Intercoastal Waterway to Florida in her 28-foot wooden sailboat, the Tenacity.

The Tenacity broke down in Beaufort, N.C., and she couldn't afford the $400 repair bill. Fletcher-Holden offered to paint signs on the mechanic's truck instead, and boat owners who saw her handiwork soon began asking whether she did boat names.

Fletcher-Holden liked the job so much that when she sailed back to Annapolis two years later, she set up a business, Fletcher Art Studio, to pay the bills while she painted large, futuristic canvases in her free time.

She paints more than 100 boat names a year in addition to indoor and outdoor murals.

Her portfolio includes an elaborate scene of the Greek Islands painted on the four walls of a bedroom and a bathroom turned into an underwater world with exotic fish and coral. She is proudest of a 90-foot-long, 17-foot-high mural depicting 200 years of Eastport maritime history, called "The Great Wall of Eastport," which she created last year.

An avid sailor who lives with her husband, Robert, on her 36-foot sailboat, Fletcher-Holden said she feels a personal connection to painting names on boats.

"The name of a boat is a very personal thing," she said. "You don't want to just slap some plastic on. I like to sit down with a client and talk about their boat, find out if it's their first boat or not, where did they get the idea for the name. It's like hiring someone to custom-make your cabinets instead of going to Home Depot to buy some."

Fletcher-Holden's attention has yielded some creative boat names from Annapolis to Lewes, Del., to Woodbridge, Va. For the owner of a demolition company who named his boat Dynamite, she painted cartoon-style, jagged explosion lines around the word. For a kindergarten teacher who named his boat Recess, she painted letters that looked as if children had colored them in.

She charges $100 to $300 for boat names and hailing ports, the price depending on the number of letters. Additional art costs slightly more. Vinyl lettering costs $100 to $200.

Fletcher-Holden said she has never misspelled a boat name, but the Annapolis native confessed that she accidentally has spelled her hometown without an "i" on the hailing port line under a ship's name more than once.

Pattie Suraci, 41, a neonatal nurse who lives in Shadyside, said she was most impressed that Fletcher-Holden spent more than 10 hours talking to her on the phone and in person about her boat and what she wanted, over a week in July, before starting the project. Suraci had just named her 22-foot powerboat Coenra's Reprise in honor of her parents, whose boat was called Coenra, a combination of the Latin words for heaven on earth.

"I had just lost my parents, it was our first boat and it was a tribute to my parents," Suraci said. "I called around to a couple of companies, and they were like, `Oh, you have a 22-foot boat. That's not big enough for us to come down to Shadyside.' It was kind of uppity. I was most impressed with Cindy. She really did get into the story behind the name."

Suraci said she was more impressed when Fletcher-Holden showed up to paint her boat July 9 even though her father, D. W. "Fletch" Fletcher, had died that morning.

Fletcher-Holden expects to continue painting names until she can no longer bend over the side of a boat. But looking ahead, even though the demand for her hand-painted names increases every year, she isn't optimistic that younger artists will carry on the trade in the region.

"I have no apprentices. No one's approached me for a job," she said. "It's going to be sad when we're gone."

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