Volume 18 • Issue 29 | December 2 - 8, 2005

Carving a place in the Seaport

By Jane Flanagan

On any given day Sal Polisi can be found in his shop hammering and chiseling on anything from a decaying ship’s wheel to a life-sized wooden British sea captain. He works the way any seaside woodcarver might have in the 19th century and arrives early in the morning, six days a week.

“I think he and the fish arrive about the same time,” said Joe Breed, a friend who works nearby. The shop is adjacent to the recently vacated Fulton Fish Market, just south of the Seaport’s Pier 17 marketplace.

Polisi’s shop is often the first stop for tourists, whom he invariably greets by saying, “This is the workshop for the South Street Seaport Museum.”

Polisi, who is the museum’s resident woodcarver, speaks in an accent that is unmistakable New York, echoing his Brooklyn roots in a close-knit Italian family. He both creates original wood sculptures for the historic ships and restores their antique parts. He is a volunteer, working fulltime in exchange for use of the shop, squeezing in private projects in his spare time.

On a recent, mild weekday morning his backdoor was open to the sounds of squawking seagulls and a lingering smell of fish. Inside the shop, which consists of two ship’s cargo containers put together, wood carvings in various stages lay about.
“He’s always working on something,” said Charlie Deroko, a marine surveyor, who has known Polisi for over 20 years. “He’s very prolific.”

Signs of Polisi, who just turned 70, are all around the Seaport. Along the Pier 17 waterfront, the stores sport his handsome historic nameplates as do the museum’s exhibit halls. The museum’s tall ships all bear his handiwork — their names meticulously etched in the bow.

“I’ve watched him swinging around the bowhead, transforming it,” said Breed, describing how Polisi did the carving on the front of the ship, working high up on scaffolding, clinging to the inward curve of the bow. “It’s a whole magical thing,” he said. Breed is executive director of St. Margaret’s House, a senior residence located nearby on Fulton St.

Museum staffers also consider Polisi their ambassador, as he is often the first Seaport representative tourists meet on their way up from Battery Park and visits to the Statue of Liberty. He greets everyone who walks in, dropping his mallet to point out sites for them on the brochures he keeps on the counter.

Among his many projects are ship figureheads, the wooden female carvings that sit high up on the front of the ship. Such women have been adorning the helm of ocean going vessels since the days of the Vikings, said Polisi.

“There was a time when no ship would sail without her,” he said.

His figurehead ladies run the gamut from the risqué to the prim. On his worktable sits a 19th century Dutch model, “Saucy Sally,” with her breasts popping out while at his feet lies a modestly clad Victorian lady. Like their forbearers, these women also have jobs awaiting them. Saucy Sally will go to a private home and the Victorian woman will take the helm of the Wavertree, the Seaport’s 1885 merchant sailing vessel now being restored.

“It’s amazing to watch a figurehead go from a couple of logs to a vixen,” said Breed who’s been watching Polisi work for the past 15 years.

Attention to detail seems to be an essential quality in a woodcarver, judging from how Polisi goes about it. “Sometimes a guy wants to rush you. You can’t let that affect you,” said Polisi, as he eyed how to mount an eagle’s head on a plaque. “Otherwise it will come back to haunt you.” He kept walking back over to his electric saw cutting more wood supports, until he got the precise height and angle he was looking for.

Polisi also keeps his tools finely sharpened, a meticulousness which permeates his work. There is also a significant mechanical side to woodcarving, everything must fit together. “It’s like a puzzle,” he said. Equally important, is patience. Mistakes must be done over immediately. “You have to be okay with that,” he said.

Just as his handiwork is all over the Seaport, Polisi, himself is well known to the seafarers coming through. Along with the volunteers who restore and maintain the tall ships, he’s gotten to know many of the working sailors who pull in and out of the pier.

“Mechanics, engineers, guys that work below deck, above deck, on the mast, Sal knows them all,” said Breed. A number of these guys fall into a category of “wharf rats,” he said.

“It’s a community that lives at the edge of the land and sea,” said Breed. One never knows exactly where and how they live. You see them if you hang around long enough. Sal knows a lot of them,” he said.

Polisi also looks out for them, often soliciting Breed’s advice on how to help an aging sailor.

“He calls when one of his buddies is in trouble,” said Breed. But the etiquette aboard ship is that you don’t probe into a guy’s life,” he added. So Breed often gives Polisi suggestions on how to help, cautioning him to go easy at first.

“‘Tack into the wind, Sal’ I’d tell him.”

Polisi has a long history with the sea. At age 17, he signed up for the Navy, where he spent four years and sailed around Europe in the 1950s. But the South Street Seaport has been his home for some time now. And he’s been around long enough to remember some of it’s more colorful characters including “Pop” Driscoll. Jerry Driscoll was a ship owner and wealthy man.

“But you’d never know it. He looked like a homeless guy,” said Polisi, who still laughs recalling an afternoon years ago. It was holiday time and Driscoll was sitting drinking coffee outside a bar. A couple of guys in suits came out in high spirits and dropped a $5 bill into Driscoll’s coffee cup. Polisi recalled his reaction.

“He was mad and said, ‘Bunch of monkeys!’” Polisi said, adopting Driscoll’s Irish brogue. “He was always calling everyone a ‘bunch of monkeys!’”

Polisi and his wife, Susan Kayser, an attorney, just got back from a trip to Italy. Kayser gave him the trip as a 70th birthday present. This is a second marriage for Polisi; the two met at the Seaport where she was also a museum volunteer. In Italy he spent a week working with a master carver in Florence. Polisi met him last year at the Splendor of Florence exhibit at the World Financial Center.

He learned a lot, including an even better way to sharpen his tools. He can’t get over the difference. Scores of them now sit lined up awaiting resharpening with the new method.

In Italy, Polisi, who was born in East New York into an extended Italian family, was drawn to men and women, some very young, practicing timeless crafts such as making leather shoes and building violins.

It feels as though Polisi, too, has been working in his shop since he was very young, but it isn’t so. He first arrived in the early 1980’s shortly after the revamped Seaport opened. He started volunteering on weekends, while maintaining his day job at New York Twist Drill, a machine tool company on Long Island where he still lives. His career there spanned 27 years, working his way up to eventually oversee 300 employees. But all time he was drawing, painting and taking classes in sculpture, anatomy and physiology. He also apprenticed with a woodcarver.

When Twist Drill was bought out in 1985, everyone was let go. It was a tough time, the place had been like a family, he said. Fortunately by then the Seaport had begun to take on a similar role. Polisi agreed to stay on as a fulltime volunteer. It was a fortuitous moment.

For Polisi was a born artist. He laughs, recalling a comment from a grade school teacher. “She said, ‘the only way you are going to get through life is to draw your way through!’”

Growing up, he was the only artist in his family, but he learned about quality by watching his grandfather make wine and he became a good cook at his grandmother’s side. He still remembers how she negotiated with a local fishmonger, by shouting down to the street from her third-story window. When they agreed upon the price, she lowered down a basket.

The memory came back to him one morning on his way in to work from his home on Long Island. Polisi always stops for coffee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and one day he glanced across the street to an Italian restaurant. He saw a man lowering a basket out a top floor window. “I had no idea anyone still did that. It brought tears to my eyes,” he said.

But Polisi couldn’t linger in the memory too long. He had projects waiting. He finished his coffee, and hopping into his car, crossed the bridge into Lower Manhattan. Circumventing the Fulton Fish mongers, who after 170 years just abandoned their historic home, he pulled up to his workshop. He picked up his chisel and got to work. By Jane Flanagan

On any given day Sal Polisi can be found in his shop hammering and chiseling on anything from a decaying ship’s wheel to a life-sized wooden British sea captain. He works the way any seaside woodcarver might have in the 19th century and arrives early in the morning, six days a week.

“I think he and the fish arrive about the same time,” said Joe Breed, a friend who works nearby. The shop is adjacent to the recently vacated Fulton Fish Market, just south of the Seaport’s Pier 17 marketplace.

Polisi’s shop is often the first stop for tourists, whom he invariably greets by saying, “This is the workshop for the South Street Seaport Museum.”

Polisi, who is the museum’s resident woodcarver, speaks in an accent that is unmistakable New York, echoing his Brooklyn roots in a close-knit Italian family. He both creates original wood sculptures for the historic ships and restores their antique parts. He is a volunteer, working fulltime in exchange for use of the shop, squeezing in private projects in his spare time.

On a recent, mild weekday morning his backdoor was open to the sounds of squawking seagulls and a lingering smell of fish. Inside the shop, which consists of two ship’s cargo containers put together, wood carvings in various stages lay about.

“He’s always working on something,” said Charlie Deroko, a marine surveyor, who has known Polisi for over 20 years. “He’s very prolific.”

Signs of Polisi, who just turned 70, are all around the Seaport. Along the Pier 17 waterfront, the stores sport his handsome historic nameplates as do the museum’s exhibit halls. The museum’s tall ships all bear his handiwork — their names meticulously etched in the bow.

“I’ve watched him swinging around the bowhead, transforming it,” said Breed, describing how Polisi did the carving on the front of the ship, working high up on scaffolding, clinging to the inward curve of the bow. “It’s a whole magical thing,” he said. Breed is executive director of St. Margaret’s House, a senior residence located nearby on Fulton St.

Museum staffers also consider Polisi their ambassador, as he is often the first Seaport representative tourists meet on their way up from Battery Park and visits to the Statue of Liberty. He greets everyone who walks in, dropping his mallet to point out sites for them on the brochures he keeps on the counter.

Among his many projects are ship figureheads, the wooden female carvings that sit high up on the front of the ship. Such women have been adorning the helm of ocean going vessels since the days of the Vikings, said Polisi.

“There was a time when no ship would sail without her,” he said.

His figurehead ladies run the gamut from the risqué to the prim. On his worktable sits a 19th century Dutch model, “Saucy Sally,” with her breasts popping out while at his feet lies a modestly clad Victorian lady. Like their forbearers, these women also have jobs awaiting them. Saucy Sally will go to a private home and the Victorian woman will take the helm of the Wavertree, the Seaport’s 1885 merchant sailing vessel now being restored.

“It’s amazing to watch a figurehead go from a couple of logs to a vixen,” said Breed who’s been watching Polisi work for the past 15 years.

Attention to detail seems to be an essential quality in a woodcarver, judging from how Polisi goes about it. “Sometimes a guy wants to rush you. You can’t let that affect you,” said Polisi, as he eyed how to mount an eagle’s head on a plaque. “Otherwise it will come back to haunt you.” He kept walking back over to his electric saw cutting more wood supports, until he got the precise height and angle he was looking for.

Polisi also keeps his tools finely sharpened, a meticulousness which permeates his work. There is also a significant mechanical side to woodcarving, everything must fit together. “It’s like a puzzle,” he said. Equally important, is patience. Mistakes must be done over immediately. “You have to be okay with that,” he said.

Just as his handiwork is all over the Seaport, Polisi, himself is well known to the seafarers coming through. Along with the volunteers who restore and maintain the tall ships, he’s gotten to know many of the working sailors who pull in and out of the pier.

“Mechanics, engineers, guys that work below deck, above deck, on the mast, Sal knows them all,” said Breed. A number of these guys fall into a category of “wharf rats,” he said.

“It’s a community that lives at the edge of the land and sea,” said Breed. One never knows exactly where and how they live. You see them if you hang around long enough. Sal knows a lot of them,” he said.

Polisi also looks out for them, often soliciting Breed’s advice on how to help an aging sailor.

“He calls when one of his buddies is in trouble,” said Breed. But the etiquette aboard ship is that you don’t probe into a guy’s life,” he added. So Breed often gives Polisi suggestions on how to help, cautioning him to go easy at first.

“‘Tack into the wind, Sal’ I’d tell him.”

Polisi has a long history with the sea. At age 17, he signed up for the Navy, where he spent four years and sailed around Europe in the 1950s. But the South Street Seaport has been his home for some time now. And he’s been around long enough to remember some of it’s more colorful characters including “Pop” Driscoll. Jerry Driscoll was a ship owner and wealthy man.

“But you’d never know it. He looked like a homeless guy,” said Polisi, who still laughs recalling an afternoon years ago. It was holiday time and Driscoll was sitting drinking coffee outside a bar. A couple of guys in suits came out in high spirits and dropped a $5 bill into Driscoll’s coffee cup. Polisi recalled his reaction.

“He was mad and said, ‘Bunch of monkeys!’” Polisi said, adopting Driscoll’s Irish brogue. “He was always calling everyone a ‘bunch of monkeys!’”

Polisi and his wife, Susan Kayser, an attorney, just got back from a trip to Italy. Kayser gave him the trip as a 70th birthday present. This is a second marriage for Polisi; the two met at the Seaport where she was also a museum volunteer. In Italy he spent a week working with a master carver in Florence. Polisi met him last year at the Splendor of Florence exhibit at the World Financial Center.

He learned a lot, including an even better way to sharpen his tools. He can’t get over the difference. Scores of them now sit lined up awaiting resharpening with the new method.

In Italy, Polisi, who was born in East New York into an extended Italian family, was drawn to men and women, some very young, practicing timeless crafts such as making leather shoes and building violins.

It feels as though Polisi, too, has been working in his shop since he was very young, but it isn’t so. He first arrived in the early 1980’s shortly after the revamped Seaport opened. He started volunteering on weekends, while maintaining his day job at New York Twist Drill, a machine tool company on Long Island where he still lives. His career there spanned 27 years, working his way up to eventually oversee 300 employees. But all time he was drawing, painting and taking classes in sculpture, anatomy and physiology. He also apprenticed with a woodcarver.

When Twist Drill was bought out in 1985, everyone was let go. It was a tough time, the place had been like a family, he said. Fortunately by then the Seaport had begun to take on a similar role. Polisi agreed to stay on as a fulltime volunteer. It was a fortuitous moment.

For Polisi was a born artist. He laughs, recalling a comment from a grade school teacher. “She said, ‘the only way you are going to get through life is to draw your way through!’”

Growing up, he was the only artist in his family, but he learned about quality by watching his grandfather make wine and he became a good cook at his grandmother’s side. He still remembers how she negotiated with a local fishmonger, by shouting down to the street from her third-story window. When they agreed upon the price, she lowered down a basket.

The memory came back to him one morning on his way in to work from his home on Long Island. Polisi always stops for coffee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and one day he glanced across the street to an Italian restaurant. He saw a man lowering a basket out a top floor window. “I had no idea anyone still did that. It brought tears to my eyes,” he said.

But Polisi couldn’t linger in the memory too long. He had projects waiting. He finished his coffee, and hopping into his car, crossed the bridge into Lower Manhattan. Circumventing the Fulton Fish mongers, who after 170 years just abandoned their historic home, he pulled up to his workshop. He picked up his chisel and got to work.


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