Mike Wright: The Wood Whisperer

Text by Janice Randall Rohlf

They were called mooncussers—rogues who plundered shipwrecks and cursed the light of the full moon for guiding ships out of harm’s way. The cargo of marooned and splintered vessels was their bounty.

Provincetown sculptor Mike Wright calls herself a mooncusser. With both a chuckle and a note of pride, she says, “I think of myself in the tradition of the scavengers who would scour the beach for lost treasure. My treasure just happens to be wood.”

In a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, the flotsam and jetsam Wright has collected and fashioned into abstract, three-dimensional art for the past twenty-five years has to meet her stringent criteria. It has to be painted wood, not raw. Also, “It absolutely has to be from Provincetown,” she says. “I feel like it’s got an energy that’s this place.”

Creative sorts—Eugene O’Neill, John Dos Passos, Hans Hofmann in the past; Norman Mailer, Anthony Bourdain, and Michael Cunningham more recently—have long sought out the Outermost Land for its acceptance of human diversity, its nurturing of the soul, and its pristine natural beauty. “Friends and I would pile into a van every weekend and drive to Provincetown,” says Wright, recalling road trips she took for diversion from her jobs as an elementary school art teacher and graphic designer in Baltimore. Finally, in 1983, she bought a B&B on the corner of Pearl and Bradford streets and put down permanent roots.

“I have reinvented myself many times, as most people on the Cape have,” says Wright, who grew up in a Maryland neighborhood full of boys with whom she loved building forts and sharpening sticks into swords (a precursor, she says, to her sculpture career). But her path didn’t come full circle until, after dabbling in oil painting, printmaking, and watercolor, she enrolled in a class with sculptor Paul Bowen at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. With Bowen, she says, “All the processes were perfect for me. I got to take long walks on the beach with my dogs; I could drag a big chunk of a boat or a plank from a floor back to the studio; and then I could hammer on it.” The physicality appeals to her.

Cobalt, saffron, turquoise, and occasionally orange and burgundy, the hues of Wright’s wood are surprisingly vibrant, given its age and provenance. Big, bold primary colors recall the buoys she collected when she still owned the B&B. “Paint means that the wood has cultural history. It’s been something, and I make it into something new, but there are still elements of what it was,” she says. “That’s what I’m always after; keeping some hint of what it was so the viewer can feel it.”

Unlike, say, rope or bits of metal that also come in with the tide, wood speaks to Wright. “No one can duplicate the patina that comes from being scrubbed by the sea, the sand, and the salt waves.” The wood appeals to other senses as well. “If I cut a piece that’s cedar, it’s very fragrant. Sometimes it has sounds. If it’s been in the sea, or drying, for a long time, all of a sudden you’ll hear groans and pops; it’s alive.”

Wright often takes inspiration from modernist painters of Provincetown from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, like Blanche Lazzell and Kenneth Stubbs. “I like to think two-dimensionally at first and then push it to three,” she explains.

In recent years, more people are scavenging the beaches, and with far fewer wooden boats, the material Wright prizes is harder to find at water’s edge. “I migrated to driving the streets and eventually Dumpster diving,” she says. Five years ago, photographer Marnie Crawford Samuelson filmed Inside Motherwell’s Dumpster, a nine-minute documentary that shows Wright, crowbar in hand, cherry-picking pieces of wood in a Dumpster outside the former home of artist Robert Motherwell. Then we see the sculptor in her studio, immersed in her creation process.

This summer, Wright is one of twenty-six artists invited to repurpose items from author and pen-and-ink artist Edward Gorey’s house, now a Cape Cod museum, into works of art that will be sold at a fundraising auction. Of course, she notes, “Gorey didn’t have much stuff with color on it.” It will be, perhaps, the first black-and-white sculpture she’s ever created.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Wright is represented by Alden Gallery in Provincetown, aldengallery.com. You can also view her work at sculptormikewright.com.

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