Bonifas hosts series on wooden boats

Haley Gustafson | Daily Press Philis Fluery, left and Jane Landweher, at right, check out the catamaran boat on display at the Bonifas Arts Center in Escanaba Thursday. The catamaran, which was handmade by Patrick Rogers, is one of the featured displays in the Bonifas’ “Wooden Boats Afloat: The Stories of Traditional Boat Building in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”

ESCANABA — The Bonifas Arts Center in Escanaba will be hosting a series of sessions and an exhibit on the history of wooden boats in the Upper Peninsula in their gallery throughout the year.

“Wooden Boats Afloat: The Stories of Traditional Boat Building in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” which begins today from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., will look at the role of wooden boats in the economic, social, and cultural setting of the U.P. Special features include displays on the Great Lakes Boat Building School, birch bark canoes, traditional fishing vessels, commercial boats, and much more. All events pertaining to the series are free to the public.

The eight weekly sessions were made possible by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council. Other contributions include boat enthusiasts and experts from restoration boat yards, Huron Mountain Club, Westshore Fishing Museum, commercial fishermen, and rowing clubs.

According to Pasqua Warstler, executive and gallery director at the Bonifas, the program is meant to share the history and stories of the U.P. and how boats have tied into it.

“It’s interdisciplinary. It’s history. It’s community,” said Warstler.

Warstler explained participants of today’s session can enjoy music from Great Lakes maritime musician and storyteller Lee Murdock, and children can learn how boats float at the kids creative station, where children will have the chance to build their own vessel. Other activities will include games, prizes and a scavenger hunt in the Bonifas gallery.

In order to prepare for the exhibit, Warstler said she, Laurie Taylor-Blitz, and Paul Arno Rose, researched boats throughout the U.P. by visiting various locations, including the Les Cheneaux islands, which are historically important to the boating industry and still thrive off it today. Taylor-Blitz is a historical preservationist and director of a museum on Beaver Island while Arno Rose is a professional photographer and boat enthusiast.

The islands house some of the best experts in restoration and wooden/marine engines, said Warstler.

While browsing through the gallery, Warstler said visitors can view paintings, replicas, and stories of wooden boats in the Upper Peninsula including a restored version of one of the oldest manufactured canoes created originally by BN Morris. Other displays include a wooden catamaran, which is essentially two kayaks held together by a frame and powered by a sail, and coracles which are small, round, and lightweight boats made of interwoven willow rods called.

“The U.P. is a unique arts and culture district,” said Warstler, adding she hopes the exhibit will bring people from all over to share the story of the U.P.

Warstler explained the Bonifas has received grants to do similar programs looking into other aspects of U.P. history. One of the more recent programs was in 2014, when the gallery showcased the history of Nahma. However, this is the first time any gallery in the U.P. has delved into wooden boats, and when Warstler first started researching she was shocked no one had showcased the topic already.

“No one has ever told the story of wooden boats in the U.P.,” said Warstler. “Which kind of surprised us.”

During the sessions, experts in the creation and history of wooden boats will be featured at the Bonifas, explained Warstler. Every Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. the public is invited to bring a lunch and learn about U.P. wood boat heritage. The next session will be held on July 19 and Noreen Johnson will discuss commercial fishing boats on the bay of Green Bay.

The series will wrap up on Sept. 6 when Robert Archibald will showcase Great Lakes fishing history.

Overall, Warstler said she hopes everyone will take advantage of this unique display at the Bonifas and encourages family, friends, and everyone in between to visit and take part in a showcasing of a small portion of U.P. history.

For more information about the Wooden Boats Afloat series, contact the Bonifas at 786-3833 or visit their website at