Captain Dennis Aho — sailor and Great Lakes artistIf you want to glimpse some of Captain Dennis Aho’s nautically themed artwork, don’t look at any white-walled gallery up the Northshore.
By: By Lucie Amundsen, Superior Telegram
If you want to glimpse some of Captain Dennis Aho’s nautically themed artwork, don’t look at any white-walled gallery up the Northshore. In fact, your best bet might be at a cozy drinking establishment, preferably one conveniently located in a Great Lakes port town somewhere between Duluth and Sarnee, Ontario.
The pencil sketch or inked calligraphy would likely be displayed behind the bar, presented as a friendly token to the barkeep. Aho, a pilot with Western Great Lakes Pilots Association, will tell you with a wink that he “stops there for a Coke-Cola and a little conversation” after piloting a freighter with mostly non-English speaking crews.
The creation may be the likeness of a waitress, a harbor scene or a hand lettered sign advising that “Women will be tolerated only if they if refrain from offensive language.” Aho jokes, “I’ve taken my wife some to some of these places and she’ll see something of mine hanging on the wall. Then there’s no denying I’ve been there.”
Aho has been out on the lakes since 1963, but has been an artist all his 65 years.
“My mother encouraged my childish drawings and bought me reams of newsprint,” says the Superior native who was remembered by an old classmate at an elementary school reunion as “the best drawer in fifth grade.”
And in one way, it was his artistic endeavors that lead him to his life on the water.
“I needed money for art school in Ohio,” says Aho who was constantly jumping on a ship to earn tuition. He even turned down a position at a famous card company offered to him while he was still a student.
“I was paged out of class and told that it was American Greeting on the line wanting to offer me a job,” says Aho, “But it wasn’t paying much and after I thought through all my expenses…well, I figured there wasn’t going to be much left for Dennis.”
So he took to the lucrative lakes in an effort to keep himself in school. “I think I’m a junior now,” he laughs.
Although Dennis Aho occasionally may wonder a few “what ifs” about that un-taken the card illustration job, he’s not sure he could have created art on demand. “I’m too independent,” he says, preferring to take his own direction sketching what surrounds him — primarily bridges and ships. In his work, you’ll see a keen eye for the small details such as the rivets and lines of water life.
“I once worked for an architect in Duluth during the off-season,” remembers Aho, “He said I had what it takes to become an architect myself given all my attention to detail, but I had been on ships since I was 18 years old. You get that traveling in your blood and it’s hard to work in a cubical after being a gypsy sailor traveling around on the Great Lakes.”
He comes by that sailor blood honestly with a grandfather, father, several uncles and cousins all working the ships as wheelsman and engineers. Even his mother’s parents sailed as a cook and porter. “They sure liked her bread,” Aho says fondly of his grandmother’s baking.
This naturally led to Aho ascending up the “hawse pipe,” as they say. Literally referring to the steel pipe through which the anchor cable passes, it’s also a term for an ordinary seaman achieving the rank of captain without a nautical science degree. It’s like the sailing equivalent of starting out in the mailroom and becoming the company CEO.
Currently there are only a handful of captains on the Great Lakes who have earned their stripes in this bottom up way.
Now Captain Aho never leaves for the ship without his charcoal pencils, good paper and pens. “I’m a sailor to earn art supply money,” he laughs saying that he does occasionally indulge in a fountain pen for his collection of 150 or so. He uses them to fill out his captain’s forms with fancy script.
“People tell me they photocopy them and keep them. Sometimes I do a little drawing on the form as I record
of what I did.”
Sadly Aho has lost much of his artistic record while when getting off a ship last year. “They dropped my suitcase into the drink and I lost three years of art and a brand new calligraphy set I hadn’t even opened.” Aho also lost some journals he used to log his trips.
“If the ship was buggy, I’d draw a little bug in my journal to remember the trip and things like that,” laments Aho.
Between the captain’s generous spirit and the loss of his suitcase, Aho doesn’t actually have much of his own art much to the chagrin of his wife, Linda. With retirement nearing, the good captain may just get around to creating that gallery collection — perhaps for his senior project for art school.