Through the Porthole

San Francisco-based artist and seafarer Martin Machado’s salty creations.

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The 900-foot container ship is nearing the end of the Pirate Corridor as it cruises through the Gulf of Aden, just off the coast of Yemen. The United States Merchant Marine crew onboard has already taken down the vessel’s defensive fire hoses and grappling hook-retardant gates when two high-speed skiffs rush out of the fog and pull up beside the ship. It’s a possible pirate situation.

The captain orders the crew into the safe room. He then orders Martin Machado, who is on bridge watch, to take over the ship’s helm. The captain brings the ship to max speed, 26 knots, while Machado executes a few aggressive turns to determine if the skiffs are following course. 

They are.  

One of the skiffs runs into engine trouble and disappears in the steel behemoth’s wake. The second skiff speeds up, crosses the ship’s bow, and races back into the fog.

No shots are fired. No boarding is attempted. It’s technically not classified as a pirate incident, which means no paperwork. Perhaps they were smugglers passing between continents, using the ship to hide from radar. Pirates usually stick to oil tankers, avoiding container ships. Machado isn’t worried. This is life at sea: long stints of backbreaking deck work followed by hours of nicotine-fueled lookout duty and the occasional burst of excitement. 

With his bridge watch over, Machado retires to his cabin. It’s a small room below deck with just enough space to rest up before the shift-cycle repeats. Depending on the run, the grind can last up to six months. Most merchant marines sleep between the grueling shifts. But not Machado. His cabin is littered with oil paints, and a large canvas is pinned to the wall. He takes a moment to gaze at the ocean through the porthole, gathering his thoughts on the events of the day. Then he begins to paint. 

The container ship will continue its course past India, around Malaysia, up China’s eastern seaboard, and across the Pacific until it pulls into San Francisco Bay. There, Machado will return home laden with memories from the voyage. The colorful characters, foreign adventures, and a removed perspective of consumerism—that salty, intangible cargo splashed onto his canvases—will be rolled up and carried out under his arm as he disembarks.

Each year, more than 500 shipping containers are lost at sea. Some sink. Others open up, spilling flotsam into the  ocean. For Machado, the phenomena of lost shipping containers is fascinating. Through art, he reimagines their fates.

In his piece titled Cheater Five on a 45-footer, a lost container becomes a surfboard. In Bringing Gifts from ABC to Captain Cook, the hulls of Native Hawaiians’ outriggers are replaced with containers. Each piece in the series is created in the eighteenth-century etching style of British artist John Webber, a member of Captain James Cook’s 1779 expedition to Hawaii in which the captain was killed on the beach. Webber’s art formed the Old World’s first impressions of the Islands. Machado’s work creates a tongue-in-cheek criticism of the modern world’s obsession with consumerism.

There’s a below-deck feel to Machado’s mainland studio. It’s a long, narrow space that sits directly underneath his shotgun apartment in SF’s Russian Hill neighborhood. Two-by-fours stripe the ceiling. Vertical wooden support beams form masts. The narrow entrance feels like a stern, with sheathed surfboards stacked near the bow. Machado’s nautical-themed art, both finished and in progress, lives in between it all.

CHEATER FIVE ON A 45-FOOTER, 2014, ink and gouache on paper, 14 x 10 inches

Machado pulls the tarp off of a miniature wave pool he’s built. It’s about the size of a pinball machine and is manually powered by a lever. He pumps the apparatus and tiny A-frames break over the homemade bathymetry. He then tosses a few miniature shipping containers in among the breakers. The words “Thoughts,” “Despair,” and “Elusiveness” are painted on their sides. They flop in the waves, lost in the patterns.

Like ports of call, Machado doesn’t linger in one medium or style for long, though similar themes always seem to find their way in. His recent art show at Park Life Gallery in San Francisco, titled Hove To, showcased a series of neo-impressionistic oil paintings of idyllic seascapes and shorelines, each photobombed by shipping containers, industrial machinery, and towering bridges. 

Hove To also featured Machado’s most recent interest: motion pictures.

While at sea, Machado found a VHS cassette in the ship’s break room. The tape was old and worn, but through the static he saw footage of merchant marine life in the middle of the twentieth century, captured on film. 

“It was a video of sailors loading a ship by hand in the Philippines,” says Machado. “They’re guys walking up planks on the beach. It’s really cool footage from a time before containerization happened. Just beautiful images.”

Machado traced the VHS tape to a legendary member of his sailors’ union, Arthur Thanash. A lifelong sailor and San Franciscan now in his eighties, Thanash started filming his travels as a merchant marine in the 1950s and did so consistently until the mid 2000s. Fixing his lens on exotic scenery and typical sailor life, Thanash also unabashedly took his camera to the seediest port-city establishments across the world—bars, strip clubs, brothels. His extensive archive traverses the full evolution of motion picture formats, from Super 8 to 16mm, Betamax to Mini DV. Machado asked Thanash if he could digitize his archive and eventually turn his footage into a full-length documentary film. Excited about the project, Thanash turned his archive over to Machado, who is currently in the process of transferring and editing the footage. 

Hove To also features a full-size recreation of a merchant marine’s cabin. Through the porthole above the tiny bed, Thanash’s footage plays on loop. Sailors from decades past smile and wave at the viewer. Palm tree-lined coasts drift past in the distance. Thanash attended Hove To and, seeing that his films were part of the installation, he pulled up a chair beside the porthole and began narrating, entertaining attendees with his exotic and ribald stories. With over half a century at sea, Thanash has a few.

In the 1980s, for instance, Thanash owned San Francisco’s historic Condor Club, a nude bar in North Beach. The Condor featured Carol Doda, an exotic entertainer who made her entrance atop a grand piano that was lowered by cables from the ceiling. One night after the club closed, one of the performers and the club’s bouncer decided to make love on top of the piano. During the deed, the piano’s lever switched on, causing the pulley system to lift it quickly to the ceiling. The bouncer was squeezed to death between the piano and the ceiling. Thanash opened the club the next day to the dancer’s screams as she was trapped between the raised piano and the bouncer’s dead body.

Machado shares this tale while sitting in his studio beside boxes of unwatched tape. His enthusiasm for both the stories and their origins fills the room.

Each summer, Machado heads to Alaska. Bristol Bay is home to the largest wild sockeye salmon run in the world, and Machado’s been commercially fishing there since 2006. When they spawn, 60 million salmon hit the river mouths that feed the bay. Over 130 years of evidence has shown that half of those fish can be pulled from the sea sustainably. It’s an industry that was pioneered by San Franciscan seafarers in the late 1800s. 

Machado packs light. Whiskey. An iPod. Prepaid cell phone. Art supplies. There’s an abandoned cannery on the bay called Graveyard Point where he and several other fisherfolk squat during the six-week season. Depending on the tide, the cannery’s rusted machinery often lies half-submerged in the bay. Pier pylons lead to nowhere. The landscapes of rugged Alaskan beauty marred with debris jettisoned from failed enterprise form another gallery of Machado’s inspiration.

“It’s off the grid,” he explains. “We’re living without power. There’s no direct source of water, so you either have to collect rainwater or catch a ride into town to refill jugs. You have to pack all your stuff in and out. There are no creature comforts and no heat.”

Installation view of Machado’s exhibit Fluid State, at the San Francisco Art Institute, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Martin Machado.

At low tide, grizzly bears wander through the settlement searching for food, occasionally getting uncomfortably close. The bears aren’t the only danger. “Some people think of it as the Wild West,” says Machado. “People have been shot over poker games. People think there are no rules or consequences.” 

Machado steers clear of that action. For him, Alaska functions as another artist residency. It’s place where he can focus on painting during the downtime, rather than hiding aces up his sleeve. 

“There are quite a few artistic people in the Graveyard Point community,” Machado says. “I’d love to put together an art show with them someday. Corey Arnold’s a very talented photographer who shoots for National Geographic. Kellen Keene is a surfer and filmmaker. There are a lot more.”

About 15 miles up the Kvichak River from Graveyard Point, the largest deposit of contained gold and copper found to date lies a half-mile below the surface. Based on core samples, geologists estimate that 80 billion pounds of copper and 100 million ounces of gold are underground. It’s a booty worth nearly a half-trillion dollars. Pirates in suits, with crews of attorneys and engineers, are already circling it.

Proponents of the project, called Pebble Mine, claim it can coexist adjacent to the wild salmon resource without destroying it. Machado and the Graveyard Point community are outspoken against it. For them, it’s a pirate encounter they’ll have to confront head-on if they want to keep commercially fishing in the world’s most productive natural salmon run. Both Machado and Arnold are using their work to combat the mine. 

On a hot summer afternoon at San Francisco’s East Harbor, Machado joins his friends Steven Amato-Salvatierra, a commercial fisherman, and Jay Palmer, a firefighter, on Larus, a small sailboat they share. Larus is seaworthy, but it’s more of a project boat in the process of being restored. The crew of old friends sets sail in the bay as the wind begins to kick up.

Machado’s seafaring lifestyle was once considered conventional in San Francisco. The sailors’ union he belongs to was established in 1885. He’s also a card-carrying member of SF’s historic Dolphin Swim and Rowing Club, established in 1877. Art and the sea are the compass and square he’s used to chart a life course free from a cubicle. Send Machado back in time 20, 50, or even 100 years, and he’d fit right in. So would his art. 

The same could not be said for SF’s newest generation. “As I ride my bike to the union hall and pass all these young people going to work at tech companies,” Machado says, “there’s a strangeness to it. The contrast between the business-casual trends outside to the people dressed in Fubu and Costco attire inside seems like a funny contradiction.” 

City life is a far cry from long-haul shipboard living, and there’s an adjustment period shifting between the two worlds. Home and away.

These days, Machado looks for shorter assignments to Alaska and Japan. It’s hard being apart from his wife, Jen, his 5-year-old son, Sage, and his 1-year-old daughter, Nina. But the stints away allow him to sink into his work. The isolation is key. 

EXPORTING THE GNAR, 2013, ink on paper, 26 x 20 inches

“Being at sea,” Machado says, “you’re not cooking or doing dishes. There is just a lot of time to paint. When I had kids, it became clear that I could get a lot more work done at sea than at home. So I want to take advantage of that to get in the zone.” 

When Machado’s not at sea, he spends the days with his kids, taking them for rowboat runs around Alcatraz and walks through San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, where they watch the ships sail in and out of the bay from the pier. He surfs Ocean Beach and paints in his studio. This balance between monastic inspiration at sea and the realities of life on land reflect one another, especially in his work.  

While San Francisco’s once-flourishing art community has been diminished by big tech money, it’s still a city that Machado looks forward to coming home to. He trades ungodly bridge watch shifts just to be on duty when his ship cruises under the Golden Gate Bridge. “I get out of town enough to appreciate what’s still here,” he says, “but the art scene has really changed. A huge chunk of friends have left the Bay Area because they’re not able to afford it. In my mind, San Francisco’s golden time is the Mission School period of the 1990s.” 

He’s referring to the city’s folk-art movement, epitomized by artists like Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, Thomas Campbell, and a slew of others. The raw, ironic anti-consumerism in the Mission School’s aesthetic is clearly an influence on Machado. McGee sprayed graffiti on boxcars and billboards that pushed wants rather than necessities, and painted portraits of alcoholics on empty liquor bottles he found. Kilgallen repurposed items found on the corners as canvases. The streets of San Francisco were once their ocean. 

The Mission School’s origins are tied to The Art Institute of San Francisco, Machado’s MFA alma mater. “I moved here in 2005,” he says, “so I really didn’t get to experience it. But there was still a little bit of the Mission School’s magic left back then. It feels more sterile these days, but it’s such a resilient city. I think it’s going to continue to surprise people.” 

Amato-Salvatierra and Palmer point out novelty waves as Larus glides along the waterfront. They discuss the Goldilocks conditions of swell and tide needed to turn them on. A luxury sailing yacht worth hundreds of thousands of dollars crosses the bow. Pirates with deep pockets. The three friends wave at them—as is the unwritten boating code when wakes cross. The waves are seen but not returned. 

“Rich assholes like that never wave back,” Jay says. Everyone laughs in agreement. 

Central to Machado’s shipping container work is a critique of consumerism. Scaling up at Facebook’s SF HQ, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Martin Machado.

Machado, Palmer, and Amato-Salvatierra talk color schemes for Larus. Pink, turquoise, and maroon are not ruled out. Using Larus to launch a micro-crabbing business is also discussed. Machado is right about San Francisco being resilient, especially as machinations to catch crustaceans with a neon sailboat by an artist, a fisherman, and a firefighter are still attainable dreams in the city. Wind is starting to funnel through the Golden Gate like a turbine, white-capping the middle of the bay. It’s time to head back. After jibing, the sail fills and Larus starts heeling through the chop back toward the harbor. Machado’s riding high on the starboard side, studying the patterns.