For Warren-based metal sculptor Jay Sawyer, becoming an artist was a third act in life.
A Maine Maritime Academy graduate, Sawyer spent five years at sea as a marine engineer before establishing his career as a welder back on shore. It was only later that he began using his welding skills as a professional artist working primarily with salvaged metal materials. And right now, he’s using his skills to create an homage to a tragedy at sea, something that hits close to home.
The sculpture currently taking shape in Sawyer’s studio is a memorial to the crew members of the El Faro, a U.S.-flagged cargo ship that sank on Oct. 1, 2015, taking with it all 33 souls aboard. Among the people who died when the El Faro sank ― including the ships’ captain ― were five graduates of Maine Maritime Academy, four of whom were also Mainers.
The memorial, titled “El Faro Salute!,” will be located on a publicly accessible piece of waterfront property in Rockland, the midcoast city where two El Faro crew members hailed from. Sawyer is hopeful that the memorial will serve not only as a way to honor the crew members who lost their lives when the vessel sank, but to bring greater awareness to the merchant marine industry as a whole and Maine’s ties to it.
“Memorializing the crew, memorializing the vessel, fostering some comfort to those that are still grieving, that was the inspiration for me,” Sawyer said. “There’s this great opportunity here for the maritime community to bring awareness to the general public about the U.S. merchant marine and Maine Maritime Academy’s role in that industry.”
The memorial has been in the works since at least 2017, when Sawyer began laying the groundwork for a concept he started developing shortly after the ship sank. In 2020, a $135,000 fundraising campaign was launched to turn the concept into a reality. The Penobscot Marine Museum is serving as the fiscal sponsor for the project, helping to process and oversee the charitable contributions being made, according to executive director Karen Smith.
Sawyer said a bulk of the donations have come from people and organizations with ties to the maritime industry.
Though the sculpture is taking shape, there’s still more to be done to bring its concept into reality.
The final third of the fundraising goal still needs to be raised. Contracts with the city of Rockland and the landowner for the placement of the memorial also need to be finalized.
But Sawyer is determined to complete the memorial ― made of steel and iron ― this summer and has set a dedication date of Sept. 24. Completing the fundraising effort prior to the dedication would be ideal, but Sawyer said he feels it is time to finish the project, even if it means being compensated for his work and time after the fact.
In the years since the ship sank, an El Faro memorial has been erected in Jacksonville, Florida, the homeport of the company that owned the vessel. But that memorial is about 1,500 miles away. Sawyer said there is a need for a memorial that is closer to home for the Maine communities and families that lost loved ones on the ship.
“With its location in midcoast Maine, it will pay particular tribute to the eight New England crew members of El Faro and will serve as a touchpoint for those grieving their loss and celebrating their lives. We know that this piece will become an important memorial in our rich maritime community and will help provide a public space of healing and hope for all of those who have lost loved ones at sea,” Smith said.
“El Faro Salute!” will feature two life-size torsos ― one male and one female ― wearing uniforms based off of actual Maine Maritime Academy uniforms. The jackets are being made from crumpled steel plates Sawyer obtained when the American Can Company was torn down in Portland in 2013.
The faceless figures will be positioned giving a salute, which Sawyer said signifies the honor and respect for the crew members lost, as well as respect for the families who lost their loved ones.
The two figures will be mounted on a steel plate base that Sawyer has cut into the shape of the cargo ship’s stern. The names of every El Faro crew member will be engraved on the base, which will have a granite bench mounted beneath it.
Sawyer graduated from Maine Maritime Academy in 1983 and went on to serve as a marine engineer for Exxon Shipping Company from 1985 to 1990.
It was at Maine Maritime that Sawyer took his first welding class, a skill that he honed aboard the massive steel ships he went to work on. Sawyer only intended to stay at sea for five years so when he was looking for a career back home in midcoast Maine, starting a welding business seemed like a natural fit.
“Welding was a childhood fascination, it was something that really intrigued me,” Sawyer said.
As a welder, Sawyer began taking on more creative projects, like railings and gates. He would also take jobs helping sculptors make repairs. He began making metal sculptures of his own in 2005.
Since then Sawyer, under the artist name of JBone, has been making striking sculptures out of primarily salvaged materials. Two of his sculptures are on public display in Maine. A spherical piece made out of former railroad spikes called “Ridin’ the Rails to Rockland” has been situated in a city-owned waterfront park since 2013. At the Portland International Jetport, a towering sphere inside a sphere sculpture made of steel rings has been on display since 2014.
“El Faro Salute!” is the first public memorial sculpture that Sawyer has undertaken, though he has a section of private memorials at his studio in Warren. Sawyer said making a memorial for his fellow mariners just felt meant to be.
“When I heard of the ship going down and the details came out, and it just rocked me, my imagination of what that crew experienced and it just really was gut-wrenching,” Sawyer said.