Honoring the legacy of African-American watermen

21 Photos

Photos and text by Amy Davis

Growing up in Shady Side in the 1960s and ’70s, Norman Gross was immersed in the community of African-American watermen who plied the upper Chesapeake Bay for crabs, clams, oysters and fish. Gross witnessed their love of the bay, and the independence they earned through backbreaking work. He had firsthand knowledge of this demanding life while helping his father, Frank, one of the first African-American captains on the Chesapeake. Exposure to bitterly cold conditions during oystering season convinced the five-year old captain’s son not to follow in his father’s footsteps. Yet the pull of the water remained. In its wake, Gross found work in boatyards, where he’s been employed as a gelcoat and fiberglass technician for 36 years.

When Gross embarked upon building models about eight years ago, he didn’t need photographs to recreate his relatives’ work and pleasure boats. As a self-taught artist, the appearance and layout of each boat was already stored in his memory from hours of painting, sanding, and cleaning the bilge. When work at the South River Marina in Edgewater slows down in the wintertime, the craftsman gets out his balsa wood, glue, paints, and other supplies. He transforms these materials into nautical sculptures by precision and patience.

For Gross, each of his nine models honors the vanishing traditions of watermen for the benefit of future generations. Whether at the marina or in his small workroom at his Edgewater home, Gross strives for perfection. Even rust around a nail is meticulously rendered on his replicas. He has found that when you think a model is complete, there is always something else to do. “You are never finished,” Gross observed, just like the work lives of watermen.