When French conceptual artist Daniel Buren first showed his artwork Voile/Toile-Toile/Voile in Germany in 1975, he did so on water. His signature stripes were applied to the sails of nine small boats that took part in a regatta, before the sails were exhibited at the Berlin Academy of Arts, presented in the order they crossed the finishing line. A play on the words Voile (Sail) and Toile (Canvas), “as soon as it is installed on the walls of the museum it looks, more or less, like a painting”, Buren said in 2018.
It’s not just the sail that has been used as a canvas by contemporary artists. Most audacious in the boat-as-art category must be Jeff Koons’s “razzle dazzle” design for art collector Dakis Joannou’s megayacht, Guilty, its statement-making geometric pattern inspired by the British naval camouflage created to mislead German U-boat captains in the first world war. In Liverpool, both Venezuelan Op-Art pioneer Carlos Cruz-Diez and British pop artist Peter Blake have given Mersey vessels distinctive “dazzle camouflage”. More recently, luxury yacht-maker Sunreef collaborated with Miami-based artist Alexander Mijares – whose fans include David Beckham and Pharrell Williams – on a ship-side mural that was shown at Art Basel Miami in 2019.
Yet boats and fine art aren’t necessarily well-acquainted sea mates, suggests Patrick Molony Harris, who with his brother Vincent runs Sail Graphics Palma. While regattas of handpainted sails have taken place in recent years, be it in the Gulf of Trieste (Fine Art Sails) or Buenos Aires (Sails & Art), and businesses offer sail branding from Southampton (Ocean Art) to San Diego (North Graphics) ), “it is a very niche niche”, says Harris of the custom process of applying artwork to boat sails. “There are two parts to our business: one is reproducing big, often ugly, logos on sails, like billboards. The other is trying to do something more interesting: working with other artists and with the owners to create something unique for their yachts.”
Harris studied architecture and fine art in the UK, but his love of sailing brought him to Mallorca in 1997. “I really wanted to make paintings, and found an ancient palace that had been converted into artist studios in Palma de Mallorca,” he says. “It wasn’t long after that one of the sail lofts approached me, saying, ‘Can you make a painting on one of our sails?”
Since then, the Harrises have painted hundreds of sails. They work from digitally scaled-up drawings, marking the artwork out on the canvas. “Then, depending on the project, we may spray on the paint, we may roll it on, or use a more traditional screen-printing technique… everything is done by hand and by eye,” explains Harris. In terms of commissions, standouts include a multifaceted gemstone design on the spinnakers of a J-Class yacht and a “brief to paint a wine bottle bursting through a sail” for a 30m schooner owned by a local winery. Most challenging was the sail for the S/Y Aglaia, a 66m sailing yacht by the Vitters Shipyard in the Netherlands. “It has a Code Zero sail, which is very big – 77m down the front edge – and semi-translucent,” says Harris. “It’s a bit like working in stained glass.”
The design itself was the work of Norwegian artist and musician Magne Furuholmen, keyboardist in pop band A-ha and co-writer of a string of ’80s hits. “This was the first time I had done something for the yacht circuit, but I was attracted to this incredible sailboat for its aesthetics – the lines, the muted interior and bold black hull and sails,” he says. “[On the sail] I used the letters in the names of the owner’s family members, from which I constructed a sort of poetic narrative loosely related to journeys and Greek myth.”
Although this remains Furuholmen’s only work of sail art (he’s had several proposals since, but not found them inspiring enough), he is now artistic director of the REV Ocean, a research and expedition vessel working to “make the ocean healthy again”. “My role there is to curate works by emerging Norwegian artists,” says Furuholmen of the onboard collection of more than 180 pieces, “as well as making sure artists are directly involved in the research and discourse around the mission of the project.”
Monaco-based art collector Emilie Pastor and art consultant Sibylle Rochat – co-founders of Concrete Projects, a philanthropic organization to support emerging creative talent – have also found a nautical home for an existing artwork. “We were looking at the work of Lawrence Weiner and fell in love with a poem that he wrote for his grandson,” says the Pastor of the American artist, whose practice centered on language and text. “It’s a poem to the sea and we were like: ‘We have to put this on the boat.'”
Pastor and Rochat collaborated with Weiner (who died last year, aged 79) to create a site-specific installation of a 2006 text work referencing wind, rain and sun. “We sent the plan of Emilie’s Sanlorenzo yacht to Lawrence Weiner’s studio and they suggested several ways of arranging the work, in the form of vinyl stickers,” recalls Rochat. “Emilie decided on the most risky kind of composition, with the poem on the walls, but also on the ceiling.”
“It really surrounds you,” says Pastor, adding that Weiner, who spent much of his life living on a houseboat in Amsterdam, was thrilled that the work ended up on water, as the way his work is distributed enables the owner to decide on the display. “You buy a certificate for the piece,” Rochat explains. “I could decide to tattoo it on my skin, and that’s fine.” And if you decide to scale it up onto a sail, there are two brothers in Palma ready for the challenge.