Richard Jeffries Brings New Life to Old Sails

Nov 28, 2018
Photo by: Victoria Ford

Among the many works of art hanging in the new Beach Haven Borough Hall’s second-floor exhibition space are two paintings on scraps of sailcloth by Richard Jeffries of Beach Haven Terrace. One is a red seahorse on a topsail, painted in 2015. The other is a new painting of colorful fish on the move.

As sails reach the end of their lifespans and get discarded, as Jeffries sees it, the discarded material becomes available for some creative purpose. Sailcloth is generally a resin-coated or laminated synthetic fabric meant to stand up to extreme wind and UV light, on which regular house or fabric paints are suitable mediums.

Motivated by his love of water and the environment, he hates to think of so much good “canvas” going to waste.

Jeffries has been part of the fabric of Long Beach Island since before he was even born; now 76, he took over his father’s floor covering business in the early 1980s and moved the family store, Jeffries Floor and Décor, from its original Ship Bottom location to its longtime and current home in Beach Haven Terrace.

As an artist, he enjoys pushing boundaries and dreaming (and doing) big. He prefers to work large, not to get bogged down in details. The sails’ largeness lends them many and varied possibilities for ways to embellish, alter, hang or cut them to allow air and light to pass through. Whole sails make handsome patio canopies, or perhaps privacy screens between neighboring decks; “you never know what artists are going to come up with.”

“I can’t believe how many different directions sailcloth art can be taken,” he said.

Jeffries cites as an influence the late Fred Noyes of Smithville, who was establishing his eponymous museum in the early ’80s, right around the same time Jeffries was hitting his artistic stride, creating “monumental wood carvings” and “environmental art” from trees, staging one-man shows at museums and schools, teaching, directing exhibits, and earning awards and recognition for his work. Jeffries admired Noyes’ drawings, his use of bright colors and his geometric style.

Jeffries has always worked with art assistants, often student volunteers, which is not unlike managing a crew on a flooring job, as was his trade.

His fascination with sailcloth started with Elizabeth Callanan, owner of Beach Threads, who makes goods and upholstery out of old sails. He started collecting her scraps. But the material is easy enough to come by, from friends and local yacht clubs.

“I’m starting to think I’m like Any Warhol,” he said, in terms of taking something ubiquitous and making it noteworthy.

It was like that with the trees – “guardians of the heart of the pines” – in fact, longleaf pines from Maryland, pressure-treated for his outdoor application, selected for their naturally figurative shapes, lifted out of the ground, turned upside down and carved to reveal the humanoid shapes within.

“I like to do art you can see, smell and feel,” he said one recent afternoon, sitting inside his ground-floor showroom. “So I started thinking whimsically, which is what I really am.”

Jeffries was also a student of sculptor Boris Blai, founder of the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences and a man with “strong hands,” as Jeffries recalls, who was “pretty fat but kind of fun” and could “take a blob of clay and turn it into a figure, so fast.”

View Jeffries’ sailcloth paintings at the newly rebuilt borough hall, located at the corner of Bay and Engleside avenues.

— Victoria Ford

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