Living

Reviving a lost art

Stephen Owen, left, and Mike Lahr have channeled their creative energies into building boats. They'll show off the finished works at Thursday's An Evening at the Cotton Factory.
Stephen Owen, left, and Mike Lahr have channeled their creative energies into building boats. They'll show off the finished works at Thursday's An Evening at the Cotton Factory.

Stephen Owen and Mike Lahr are talented woodworkers who restore homes and build cabinets. But their true passion is an uncommon craft in York County: building boats.

"Cabinets are not that exciting, but when you build a boat, it's like you've created a living entity," said Owen, 46. "It's a passionate thing to build."

Owen, of Hickory Grove, has restored some of the historic homes on Rock Hill's College Avenue. Lahr, 56, who lives in Smyrna, is a general contractor who also dabbles in pottery, stained glass and other forms of art.

The two will unveil their artistic masterpieces -- two 4-by-16-foot handmade, Southern yellow pine river flats -- Thursday night, during a local art extravaganza, An Evening at the Cotton Factory.

They are among more than 40 participating local artists who nurture their passion for various forms of art even as they earn a living in more traditional "day jobs."

The event, the brainchild of Rock Hill waitress Linh Le, a blues musician, is being sponsored by Thi's Place on Main, Williams & Fudge and Old Town Bistro.

Le said she wanted to "bring to light all these amazing people with amazing talent who don't get to necessarily showcase it every day . . . All of these people who you don't know as artists are coming out of the woodwork."

Owen and Lahr are classic examples. Owen wanted to use his woodworking ability to build a wood boat, similar to the river flats once used in West Africa. The craft's form was adapted by Europeans as a punt and, later, as a Carolina rice boat.

He wanted to build a craft with a stable fishing platform and a deck that could be used in bow fishing. "I wanted something that could handle the Catawba and Broad rivers," he said. "I wanted something that could take a beating."

Owen suggested the project to Lahr, also a woodworker who enjoys hunting and fishing. They decided each of them would build a boat and they'd work together on both projects.

They each drew their own designs, Lahr said, and although both boats are very similar, each designed his a little differently to suit his own ideas.

"Each artist has a different viewpoint, a different way of looking at it," explained Lahr.

The creation process was part of the thrill for them. "It's actually the whole journey, the initial concept of the idea, and then making design decisions," Owen said. "Being an artist is not just the finished product, it's the journey."

The boats are put together with traditional tongue-and-groove construction techniques, including period silicon-bronze screws and annular ringshank nails, Owen said.

They did use some modern adhesives, Owen said. But aside from that, "this is the same way that these boats would have been built 100 or 200 years ago. It's sort of a lost art."

Lahr's boat, which will be finished with a marine varnish, is completed with oak seats, stern and bow lights and is wired for a power motor. The hull is narrower than Owen's boat.

"It's a woodworker's challenge, because you're not working with a square," Lahr explained. "It's like a cabinet on steroids, as far as doing the work. It's more challenging than other carpentry work."

Owen chose a more primitive design for his boat, and sealed the wood with a traditional homemade finish, linseed oil, pine tar and turpentine. "I wanted something very simple, rugged," he said.

The boats, which took about six months for them to build, are for sale. Lahr has priced his craft at $6,000 and Owen plans to ask between $4,800 and $5,200.

Owen has already christened his boat in the water. It's designed for shallow draft and is highly efficient at low speeds. It can be powered by a trolling motor, paddle or even a pole.

"These things slip through the water easily," said Owen, who said it "paddles like a canoe."

Both Owen and Lahr said they'd like to start a cottage industry of boat building in York County. "This is a big industry in the New England states. It's just not done locally," Lahr said. "If there's enough interest in these boats, we'd do nothing else."

Want to go?

What: An Evening at the Cotton Factory.

When: 7 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: The Cotton Factory in Rock Hill

Details: Live music by Hank Futch from the Charleston Bue Dogs, art market featuring more than 40 local artisans, silent auction with work by celebrity artists and more.

Tickets: $50 per person and $25 for Art After Hours members, include drinks, appetizers, dessert and entertainment. Membership in Art After Hours is open to art patrons ages 25 to 40.

Proceeds: Benefits the Arts Council of Rock Hill and York County's new Starving Artist Fund, which will assist artists with the cost of professional services. Event sponsors are Thi's Place on Main, Williams & Fudge and Old Town Bistro.

Details: Call 328-ARTS.

What: An Evening at the Cotton Factory.

When: 7 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday.

Where: The Cotton Factory in Rock Hill.

Details: Live music by Hank Futch from the Charleston Bue Dogs, art market featuring more than 40 local artisans, silent auction with work by celebrity artists and more. For a list of the artists showing work, see 5D.

Tickets: $50 per person and $25 for Art After Hours members, include drinks, appetizers, dessert and entertainment. Membership in Art After Hours is open to art patrons ages 25 to 40.

Proceeds: Benefits the Arts Council of Rock Hill and York County's new Starving Artist Fund, which will assist artists with the cost of professional services. Event sponsors are Thi's Place on Main, Williams & Fudge and Old Town Bistro.

Details: Call 328-ARTS.

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