Sculptor Jay Sawyer at work at his Studio JBone in Warren on Saturday. Sawyer is trying to raise money for a memorial for the Mainers and fellow Maine Maritime Academy graduates who died in the disaster at sea. Photo by Sarah Sawyer, courtesy of Studio JBone

After graduating from Maine Maritime Academy in 1983, Jay Sawyer spent five years at sea as an engineer on a 1,000-foot oil tanker. He sailed around the world and experienced all manner of mishaps on open water – fires, seaquakes, typhoons, collisions. But few things made him doubt he would touch solid ground again more than when he sailed directly into a storm.

“That ship would roll, and you would wonder if she was coming back up,” he said. “When that thing got tossed around, you realized you are not that big.”

It had been a long time since he got tossed on the water, but when Sawyer heard about the El Faro cargo ship disaster in fall 2015 he understood on a visceral level the fear the El Faro crew members must have felt when they realized their vessel wasn’t coming back up. Sailing from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico, the El Faro sank off the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin. All 33 members of the crew died. Five of them – the captain and four crew – were alumni of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. Four of them were Mainers.

Now an artist living in Warren, Sawyer wants to honor the El Faro crew with Maine ties by creating a piece of public art for Rockland Harbor. Sawyer, 58, is in the early stages of planning and raising money for his piece, which he envisions as a representational steel sculpture mounted on a large granite boulder that will depict a pair of life-size merchant marine uniforms, from the torso up, with an arm in stiff salute. He is calling his piece “El Faro Salute!” – and says the exclamation point is both intentional and important. “You salute every day and those salutes can get pretty ho-hum. There is nothing ho-hum about this salute,” he said. “This is about paying respects to loved ones and honoring the entire crew.”

Maine Maritime graduates who died in the disaster were the captain, Michael Davidson of Windham; Danielle Randolph of Rockland; Michael Holland of Wilton; Dylan Meklin of Rockland; and Mitchell Kuflik of Brooklyn, New York.

“A Spirit of Its Own,” a sculpture by Jay Sawyer, is on view at the Portland International Jetport. Photo by Jay Sawyer

Sawyer has made his living as an artist for more than a decade, transitioning from his work at sea to a career as a dry-land welder. He makes industrial-scale sculpture out of steel and other heavy metals. Among his artworks are “A Spirit of Its Own,” a spherical piece made with shear rings welded together, on view at the Portland International Jetport, and “Ridin’ the Rails to Rockland,” also near Rockland Harbor, made with railroad spikes welded into a sphere.

Deb Holland, mother of Michael Holland, said she and her husband, Robin, are pleased that Sawyer is trying to honor their son and his peers with a sculpture in Maine. The only other memorial to the El Faro is in Jacksonville, Florida, the home port of TOTE Maritime Inc, owner of the El Faro. “The only place we have to go is the memorial in Jacksonville. We totally appreciate that place, but it’s a plane ride to go there. To have a place in Maine we can drive to that recognizes the sacrifices the El Faro crew made and honors mariner industry in Maine as a whole is wonderful thing. That means a lot to us,” said Holland, of Wilton.

Sawyer’s budget is $135,000. The artist began raising money for the project in March, just as the coronavirus hit. With things loosening up, he wants to continue his fundraising. So far, he has raised $12,500 toward his goal. He is hoping to raise most of the money through Maine Maritime alumni. A representative of the academy did not respond to requests to discuss the project.

The Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport is serving as fiscal sponsor for the project, said museum director Karen Smith. “When we agree to serve as fiscal sponsor for a project, we look for things that fit our mission and that further the work we are doing. When Jay approached us, it felt like a natural fit,” Smith said. “We are not just a historical museum. It is important for us to capture and share the ongoing maritime history and culture of Maine and Penobscot Bay. The El Faro is an important part of the story of Maine and its maritime culture. This is a beautiful tribute to those who were lost.”

Tom Luttrell, city manager of Rockland, said the memorial will be sited along Harbor Trail off Atlantic Street in Rockland’s south end, on land owned by Dragon Products Co. The city endorses the project, Luttrell said. “We are in agreement with it, and we think it will be great,” he said.

Sawyer likes the location because Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse will be in the background. Translated into English, El Faro means “the lighthouse” or “beacon.” In addition, two of the crew members who died were from Rockland, he said.

A regular exhibitor at Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Show in Rockland, Sawyer shared his vision for the piece with visitors in 2017. “The amount of community compassion toward the surviving family and friends was immense,” he said.

The artist did not know the captain or crew members, but this project is personal to him nonetheless. “Hearing the news of the El Faro sinking and hearing the personal stories – and knowing these are my brothers and sisters – I knew I had to try to do something,” Sawyer said. “There’s a bond there. It’s in my blood. It’s who I am and what I do, and that’s the crux of the matter. And beyond that, there is a need for this. There is not a memorial for the El Faro in Maine, and there should be. And I am the right person to do it.”


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