James Bowthorpe, an artist, activist, filmmaker, furniture maker, and father, flew from the UK to New York last week to take part in The Feast, a two-day summit focused on creativity and social impact. Bowthorpe had a goal: to build a boat made from the waste of the conference, and then paddle it from Red Hook (where The Feast took place) to Battery Park and back again. To make it a proper challenge, Bowthorpe set a few rules: all building materials had to come from dumpsters within a one-block radius of the conference at Pioneer Works; the tools he brought with him had to fit in his carry-on bag; and, perhaps the easiest one, he had to do it in 24 hours.
This was Bowthorpe’s second sailing of a boat made from waste; his first was a six-day trip on the Thames in 2010. The idea for that came when Bowthorpe had “a period between gainful employment,” in his words, and found himself crossing the river daily. In Red Hook, holding a tool that had been his grandfather’s, Bowthorpe told me, “I had time to think how London wouldn’t exist without the Thames.” He paused, continuing in a soft voice: “I wanted to make a connection between the two. It’s about more than the environment. It’s transportation, economy … Rivers are a metaphor for everything.”
The water runs deeper. Growing up in Somerset, in southwest England, Bowthorpe lived an hour from two different coasts. “We live on an island,” he reminded me, and perhaps himself. “Every British person has a bit of that in them.”
Despite his close ties to the water at home, Bowthorpe’s education in boats came about when he left England. He did woodworking on the interiors of super-yachts in Barcelona and then on smaller boats in Vancouver. He offered his services before he really knew what he was doing, learning on the job.
Adventure seems to be in Bowthorpe’s DNA. When he first graduated from university in 2000 — with an MA in English Literature — the artist says he nonetheless felt unqualified to put forth any original statements and thus began reaching for experiences. “I want to be a person that can manipulate things with my hands, versus ideas with my mind,” he explained. In 2009, Bowthorpe cycled the globe, breaking the world record by completing the journey in 174 days and 6 hours. His goal had been to raise money for a lab he worked in doing Parkinson’s research, and to break a record that many said was unbreakable. He raised $150,000. When that was over, he again began searching for a meaningful task, but this time he wanted it closer to home. This led him to the Thames, and from there to Red Hook.
Bowthorpe’s day at The Feast began Friday morning and lasted until 3 am on Saturday, when he finished building the boat. Made of trash, the craft was held together by twine and trunnels (nails made of wood); its hull was a broken ladder. Wearily he made his way back to his hotel room, although not for long. At 10:30 am, he put in at the slightly grubby Red Hook shore, a gigantic Princess Cruise ship looming between him and Manhattan. The boat bobbed high with a worrisome bit of extra buoyancy. Bowthorpe set off and, after an hour, had made it about a third of the way into the East River. But there were tricky currents to fight, and he decided to turn around. “I should have sailed when I finished early this morning,” he told the crowd at The Feast later that evening. No one seemed to regard it as a failure. It had been a performance of building, not of sailing.
Next up for Bowthorpe will be his biggest project to date, one that will make use of all of his skills. The Hudson River Project will again involve a boat made from the waste of New York. Bowthorpe will build it on the streets of Manhattan over a two-week period beginning in February 2015. He hopes to engage people along the way, getting them to wonder about the world in the same ways he does. With his flush red beard, pale blue eyes, and unassuming attitude, he answers questions with ease, drawing strangers into his journey.
Once the boat is built, and if he can find a suitable bike, Bowthorpe will cycle with it to the source of the Hudson, Lake Tear of the Clouds near the border of Vermont. From there, Bowthorpe will paddle 350 miles down the iconic river that is many things, depending on whom you ask: primordial nature, international shipping channel, power generator, urban microcosm. (Coincidentally, a group of artists recently undertook a similar journey.) Accompanying the artist will be a crew of five filming the entire process. Far from a solo experience, Bowthorpe hopes that many will see his cinematic story.
When I pressed him to choose one word to describe himself, he couldn’t. “I don’t do anything full time,” he said. “My life is a project.”
The Feast took place October 9–11 at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer St, Red Hook, Brooklyn).