Two Cape Cod artists are breaking down barriers and forging new ways of thinking about art, craftsmanship and the world around us. Both have an immense respect for the environment, and they use the same medium—wood—albeit in dramatically different ways. One creates oversized, rustic-looking wall décor, while the other creates intricately carved and polished pieces.Text and photography by Marina Davalos
Humble and unassuming, Chris Booras is the owner of Booras Hand Carved Creatures of the Sea in Osterville, which has been evolving slowly over the years along with each intricately handcrafted piece he creates. Not only does Booras foster a delicate attention to detail as he carves each piece, but his wife, Sarah, insists he’s obsessed with each and every detail. “He’ll say something to the effect of, ‘Oh no, look at this little spot,’ and I’ll say, ‘What are you talking about?’ Nobody sees the details like he does.”
Booras is a longtime recreational fisherman and overall lover of the sea. “I belong out here,” he says, over a clear cellphone connection from his boat, two miles out from Barnstable Harbor. He has a deep admiration for the ocean and its creatures, and a passion for commemorating them with his works. When he’s not out on his boat, he can be found in his basement workshop, creating woodcarvings of bluefin tuna, great white sharks, whales, seahorses, nautilus shells, starfish and even masks. His signature pieces include a four-foot-tall seahorse wall hanging and a breaching whale, made to stand in the center of a tabletop.
A devoted husband and father of three daughters—Krista, 24, Arianna, 20, and Zoe, 12—Booras moved to the Cape in the early 1970s from Franklin, and graduated from Sandwich High School in 1984. Booras was always “the artistic one.” In school, kids would often line up and ask him to draw something for them. Artistic talent runs in his family—his mother used to work in charcoal, and his grandfather, a former Boston restaurateur, painted murals for his restaurants—though Booras is mostly self-taught. “I do it because I have to. I’m passionate about it.”
In describing his creative process, he says, “I see it in my head, then I’ll make a drawing, a template. I’ll take that and put it into wood. I’ll see in the wood what’s in my head until I create something I can live with.” He’ll pencil out a pattern onto the wood, in the creation of one of his seahorses, for example, then he’ll alternate between chisels of varying degrees in width to carve out the details and bring forth his intended creation. It takes hours of dedication and meticulous attention to detail. His finished pieces are so smooth and refined, it makes one wonder how a person can take a hunk of wood and turn it into something so graceful. “The wood is very hard, it can be hand-breaking, and not a lot of people have the patience to get it really smooth. I use lots of sandpaper, and I finish it with a tung oil.”
His pieces are carved mostly from African mahogany or black walnut, and he usually has a few wood-carving projects going at one time in his basement workroom, where, in addition to his woodworking bench, he also has set up an easel and paints. “I’ve been teaching myself to paint,” he says, nonchalantly. Equally as nonchalant, he adds that he’s played saxophone for more than 35 years. “I’m not that good. It’s just a hobby.”
In addition to his signature wood creations, Booras is also starting to dabble in bronze sculpting, but says that will develop sometime down the road.
SOPHIA PHILLIPS DRESS
She’s petite, young and pretty, and she can frequently be seen hauling around 50-pound pieces of wood, or seated behind a table saw. Her “Sticks and Stones” collection features rustic-looking, often large-scale décor, which she sells at her studio/gallery, Faces Gallery, in Dennisport. Her creations range from unique, oversized wall hangings made from reclaimed wood to handcrafted tables featuring tabletops with intricate stone mosaic inlays. Driftwood is a longtime favorite of hers and she uses it to adorn larger pieces. “When people come into my studio, they’ll ask me, ‘How does he make these?’ They’re always surprised to see that it’s me who makes them. I love that,” says Sophia Phillips Dress.
Dress is a 13th-generation Chatham resident who comes from a long line of artists and craftsmen. “I’ve been painting and drawing since I was a baby,” says Dress, having gotten a taste of the artist’s life since childhood, often traveling cross-country in a van with her artist/sculptor mother, Genie Fritchey. Craftsmanship runs deep in her family: her uncle, Paul Phillips, of Harwich, is a decoy maker, and both her grandfather, Friedman Phillips, and her father, Craig Phillips, were master carpenters.
As a child, Dress was always fascinated to watch her father work with wood. “The first piece I ever made was when I was 11,” she says. “I said to my Dad, ‘I want to make a chair.’ He gave me four posts, two pieces of plywood, a hammer and some nails, and said, ‘Here, go ahead and make a chair.’ And I did it!” Her father has been a major influence and mentor in her life and her work.
As a senior in high school, she took dual enrollment classes at Cape Cod Community College, and had the good fortune to study life drawing with artist Heather Blume. Dress always loved to collect paper and scraps, and she once assisted Ms. Blume with a large-scale installation consisting largely of cut paper. Ms. Blume encouraged Dress to take a bookbinding and papermaking class. “If I could,” says Dress, “I’d make everything I own.” Dress translated her papermaking and bookbinding abilities into working with wood, mostly learning on her own and practicing with her father.
In October 2013, she married Nate Dress, who is now in his third year as executive chef at Nor’east Beer Garden in Provincetown. “It was my wedding that initially sparked the idea that I could do something with my woodworking,” says Dress. “I’d designed two 20-foot long Tuscan tables for the wedding, and with my father’s help, built a bar. That was the first large-scale piece that my Dad and I made together.” Guests at her wedding were fascinated by her skill and craftsmanship, and suddenly she was receiving custom orders.
To find wood to work with, Dress often travels to buildings that are being torn down, so she can “reclaim” the wood. Currently, she’s involved in the demolition of a barn that’s more than 200 years old. “It is such a crucial part of what I do. I’ve learned so much about the history of how homes were once constructed on Cape Cod, like the use of horsehair as a binding agent in plaster, and the use of old newspaper for insulation. I found one board with a newspaper clipping from 1906.”
Her bestsellers are her tables with stone accents and her custom work, and she often receives compliments from local builders and craftsmen. “I’m so grateful when craftsmen come in and compliment me and tell me they’re inspired,” says Dress. “That’s just the ultimate compliment.”
Faces Gallery, 668 Main St., Dennisport, 508-694-5153