Last year, Lou Husser was handed a heap of wood, thread and canvas and asked to make a sailing ship from it.
This was both easier than it sounds and more difficult. Easier because the materials had, in fact, once been a sailing ship — a model made 50 or so years ago by an inmate at the District’s Lorton prison in Fairfax County. Harder because it’s doubtful that the prisoner had ever built a ship model before. Certain peculiarities in its design had Lou scratching his head.
But Lou, of Stafford County, is a skilled craftsman. A member of the Washington Ship Model Society — and a retired U.S. Navy surface warfare officer — he’s good at fiddly tasks.
Lou’s restoration was unveiled Sunday at the Workhouse Prison Museum at Lorton. The ship — a galleon about three feet from bow to stern — has a single mast, five cloth sails (Lou’s wife, Betsy, washed them in Ivory baby soap) and 10 little wooden cannons. Paper medallions, probably cut from a magazine, are pasted in the stern. Two drawers pull out from the stern, too, each roughly sized to fit a pack of cigarettes.
“It is a real, true piece of folk art,” Lou said.
Like a lot of folk art, the ship is crude. The hull was probably made from a fruit crate, its wooden slats disassembled, cut to size and glued in place. (There were no nails.) The brown stain may be from shoe polish.
The two-room museum in Building 9 at Lorton displays other examples of prisoner art, including a box made from matchsticks, a carved wooden cross and some paintings, including portraits of a warden’s wife and two daughters.
“They had all the time in the world,” Irma Clifton said of Lorton’s inmates. She worked at Lorton for 26 years. “A lot of them were very talented. Unfortunately, they just didn’t always direct that talent in the right direction.”
Prison encourages a certain kind of creativity in the interest of self-preservation, and on display at the museum are an assortment of shivs and shanks: soup spoons whose handles have been filed to a point, a scissors blade wrapped in masking tape.
“We have tons of those,” Irma said.
Irma’s the person who donated the ship model to the museum. She got it from Agnes Tacey. Tacey — who died in 2010 — was a corrections officer at Lorton, which closed in 2001. She had served in the Navy WAVES during World War II, and it was probably her pride in that service that motivated a prisoner to build the model. Some inmates, Irma said, would ingratiate themselves with prison staff by fashioning gifts for them.
There’s nothing new about that, Lou said. Among the finest, most collectible ship models in the world are those made from bone by French sailors who were captured by the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
The museum folks aren’t sure who made this particular model ship, though when Lou lifted it up Sunday and looked at the base, he spied something penciled there: Ron Mosly, “87.” (No one is sure whether that’s significant.)
Lorton opened in 1910 as a workhouse. For most of its history, it was a minimum-security facility. It had its own brick works, dairy and farm. Among its famous residents: Chuck Brown, before he became the godfather of go-go, and dozens of suffragists who were arrested in 1917 while protesting outside the White House. A log book recounts their crimes: “Obstructing free passage of sidewalk.” Some were force-fed by tube at Lorton. (The more things change . . .)
Modelmaker Lou has a few of his own projects going, including the Flying Cloud clipper ship and the Unicorn, the pirate ship from Tintin. If the unknown Lorton inmate made his ship to kill time and curry favor, why does Lou build his?
“Because I don’t drive the big ones anymore,” he said. “It’s something better than watching television all night.”
Restoring the Lorton ship was a challenge. “That middle sail drove me nuts,” Lou said. Where did it go? And what of the spar at the top of the mast? Its alignment, relative to the hull, should have been port to starboard, or side to side, but instead it was bow to stern, or end to end. The result was a curiously flat impression, like that of an Egyptian hieroglyph.
And then it struck Lou: “He must have worked from a two-dimensional picture,” he said.
Perhaps there in his cell the inmate gazed at a photograph of a sailing ship and imagined standing aboard its deck, a free man borne to the tropics on a strong breeze.
The Workhouse Prison Museum at Lorton, 9601 Ox Rd., Lorton, is open noon to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. weekends. Visit workhousemuseums.org . On Feb. 11, the Workhouse Arts Center will present a panel discussion on the rehabilitative power of art and music for prisoners. For more information, and to register, visit workhousearts.org.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.