Local Artist Marc Castelli Captures the Grit of Watermen on the Chesapeake Bay
Over the past 25 years, Marc Castelli has been painting watercolors of the lives of Chesapeake Bay watermen. This year marks his 25th year working with Carla Massoni and her gallery in Chestertown.
In his words, his paintings are reflections of the deep and profound magic of the light in the air and the water that continue to inspire him. But, he said, his paintings also reflect the relationships he has built with watermen while becoming a part of their world.
He has taken advantage of the opportunities presented to him with gratitude and a humble heart.
“Once you have established sincerity, trust and honesty, there is a lot of generosity on the Eastern Shore,” Castelli said.
In 1995, Castelli moved to Chestertown with his wife Phyllis and their three children from Havertown, Pa., where he taught drawing and painting in community art schools. He has raced sailboats for 43 years, and the past 29 he has been racing log canoes.
He has photographed all manner of sail race, including five America’s Cups. From log canoes, Castelli developed a curiosity about the watermen who make their living on the Chesapeake Bay.
On the dock in Chestertown, he met fishermen who he now has fished with for more than 15 years. His first connection with watermen, however, was with a man named Jerry Creighton, who invited him to go crabbing one day. This opened the door to him being able to learn more about the lives of these men.
He later was asked to sell a group of watermen’s wives a painting of Rock Hall waterman Willie Beck and his father, who were oystering at the time, to be given as a wedding gift. Beck later rescued the painting during a house fire. It was important to him.
“I spend hundreds of hours each year on the water with the watermen who have learned that they can trust me to paint the truth of their lives. I do not need to bring any nobility to their labors,” Castelli said. “I have discovered that by gaining their trust and being invited to go out with them, that they reveal the nobility of themselves and their work to me in an unconscious manner that needs no embellishment from me.”
Castelli’s camera is an important tool in his painting arsenal. That, and the experience of working alongside these men, which affords him an understanding of the world he is painting.
“Photos capture more than the mind can remember — the texture of details is very important,” he said. Sometimes his attention to detail surprises the watermen he paints, he said.
Castelli said there are three important rules he follows while on the water: don’t get in the way; don’t ask the watermen to pose; and don’t stick a camera in their faces. Respecting their personal space on the boats has allowed him to get honest images without infringing on their work.
“My camera lens is always covered with crap as I work alongside these men. An old Chinese adage says, to know one thing totally, you have to know 10,000 things. I pride myself in the accuracy of my pictures,” Castelli said.
His parents influenced his love of history and culture, as well as his approach to relationships. Castelli’s father, a geographer, and his mother, a historian, gave him important advice that he always has remembered, he said.
“They told me, it doesn’t cost you anything to say ‘thank you,’ but it will cost you everything if you don’t,” Castelli said.
These are words Castelli has lived by with the watermen who have invited him on their boats. He often gives the watermen 8-inch by 10-inch photos to thank them for having him aboard, and also gives away his paintings to watermen’s family members for weddings, birthdays, and funerals.
“These men are more than the subject of my paintings,” Castelli said. “Three things are important to me in my life: my family, my art work, and the watermen.”
Castelli’s relationships with watermen are interconnected with the issues on the Bay, and have led him to be an activist for watermen and the health of the Bay.
“I can’t just take the photographs and not do anything with them. Watermen understand that I am an artist, and I paint to paint,” Castelli said. “While exhibiting my paintings, I use them to tell stories and inform people about the issues of the Bay and the lives of the watermen. They don’t work in bluebird weather all the time. People often don’t understand all that’s involved in where their seafood comes from.”
Carla Massoni, owner of Carla Massoni Gallery and MassoniArt, said, “The best gift Marc has given me is a deeper knowledge of the Chesapeake Bay. I get to experience these incredible connections he has made. Being on the cusp of this man’s life has been nothing but a joy.”
Through a series of relationships, Castelli has had the opportunity to paint black watermen, who have played an important role on the Bay since the Revolutionary War, initially serving as sailors and eventually operating as commercial fishermen, oystermen, and crabbers.
He got to know Capt. Eldridge Meredith, who was commissioned as the 101st admiral of the Chesapeake Bay by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and also Meredith’s son. Castelli was commissioned by Vince Leggett of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation to paint a portrait of Meredith and his son, Capt. Tyrone Meredith.
Because of the portrait, he was asked to go out on the family’s head boats out of Kent Island. This relationship became more personal when he was asked to attend Eldridge Meredith’s funeral. Since then, Castelli has been fishing many times with Tyrone Meredith on the head boat Island Queen II.
Castelli reflected on the many rewarding experiences he has had during the 25 years on the Shore.
“The people on Tangier Island have a saying — once you get the mud of the Chesapeake between your toes, you are never the same,” Castelli said.
To learn more, visit marc-castelli.com.
Marc’s work will be featured at Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area’s fifth annual event, “Heritage Heroes — Celebrating Those Who Work on the Water” from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 7, at the Avalon Theatre in Easton.
This year’s program will feature Vince Leggett, historian, editor, and founder of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation; and Castelli, who will discuss how the watermen’s culture has inspired his and Leggett’s work and what they are doing to help sustain the culture. The event is open to the public and the cost of admission is $25 per person.
For more information, contact Gail Owings, Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area, at 410-778-1460 or 410-708-6137. In October 2018, Castelli will celebrate his 25th anniversary with Carla Massoni Gallery during Downrigging Weekend. To get on the mailing list for the exhibition opening, contact Massoni at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit massoniart.com.