Local Student & Veteran Contributes to Museum Exhibit

By Susan Minichiello

Wentworth Institute of Technology student and Iraq War veteran Jim Cleveland created a 20-foot long scale model of a ropewalk for the Ropewalks of the West End and Beyond exhibit running at the West End Museum through October 27. The model is essential to the exhibit—which traces the history, vitality and economic significance of the rope-making industry in colonial and federal Boston—and brings to life the bygone trade. Jim volunteered for the project and spent about six weeks fashioning his replica after a ropewalk at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut.

From the mid-17th century to the end of the 19th century, the rope-making industry thrived in Boston. Ropewalks—long, narrow structures with covered walks and sheds that housed rope-making facilities—dotted the landscape of West Boston and supplied rope primarily for seafaring vessels. One of the city’s earliest ropewalks lay less than 100 yards from today’s West End Museum.

Jim Cleveland is pursing a Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture at Wentworth and will enter his third year this fall. In the Spring 2012 semester, he studied under Professor Lois Ascher, who is also a West End Museum Advisory Board member. A regular part of Ascher’s Boston Voyages by Book and Foot Humanities course class is literary tours of historic Boston, and one such outing included a visit to the West End Museum. This was Jim’s second encounter with the Museum and the neighborhood. As part of his coursework for a freshman year class with Ascher, Jim and three other students produced a short film about the urban renewal and destruction of the old West End. The film consisted of old neighborhood images interspersed with interviews with Bruce Guarino, head tour guide at the West End Museum, and James Campano, editor of the West Ender Newsletter. (Both are also Museum Board members.)

“I wanted to do the film because I was really moved by Professor Ascher’s passion for the history of the neighborhood and the Museum. Plus, I’ve always been drawn to the underdog type of story,” said Jim. “The story of the destruction of the old West End is a very important and relevant. Explaining it to the modern generation is one way to make sure something like that never happens again.”

When Jim’s class visited the West End Museum this spring and Executive Director Duane Lucia shared with Ascher his desire to include a scale model ropewalk in the upcoming show, she immediately thought of Jim. He had proven himself a project-oriented student with great attention to detail and a clear interest in the history of the West End, so Ascher thought this project would be right up his alley. She was right.

“Professor Ascher knows me pretty well and she’s able to get me to do things I might not normally do,” Jim said. “She asked me if I’d be willing to create the model as an independent project connected to her class, and I said yes. Then I started talking with Duane and Tom [Burgess, who curated the show] to explore exactly what they wanted.”

Jim spent the better part of the next month painstakingly planning and constructing every aspect of the scale model in consultation with Lucia and Burgess. Lucia took photos of the ropewalk at the Mystic Seaport Museum, and Burgess went there to physically pace out distances and other important life-sized measurements so Jim could create a truly accurate scale model. Through additional research, Jim first tried to recreate the iconic structure digitally and shared the three-dimensional drawings with Lucia and Burgess for their feedback and approval.

With a limited project budget of $200, Jim had to get creative; there was no way that amount of money would cover materials from an art supply store. He began networking with professors and others at Wentworth and discovered there was an abundance of discarded and abandoned materials left by students and faculty at the end of the semester. Jim turned thousands of pieces of scrap bass wood (AKA modeling wood) into more than 1,700 individual pieces to create the ropewalk model.

Jim worked closely with Alex Cabral, manager of the fabrication shop in Wentworth’s Architecture Department, to laser cut all of the pieces to the specifications of the digital draft of the building. These included exterior clapboards with hundreds of windows as well as laser-etched walls and roofs made of chipboard. Jim also crafted every individual piece of machinery within the model—spinning wheels, the forming machine, pulleys, a hoist elevator, a rail system—and other elements like spool racks, spools, oil/tar barrels, hemp bales, and a staircase in the two-story yarnhouse, or headhouse, portion of the building. Through trial and error, he came up with the right stain for each exterior and interior element that would mirror the wood used in the period. Then he had to put it all together! The final result is a magnificent and historically accurate piece that greatly enhances the exhibit.

“It is a thrill to see a well-developed plan come to fruition,” said Jim. “Overall, I was very satisfied with the end result in relation to the amount of time I had spent to complete it. Some elements of the model I was very happy with, for instance, finding the perfect color balance and weathering effect of the exterior.”

Aside from a personal sense of accomplishment and pride in community service, why would anyone volunteer for such a demanding and meticulous project? To be fair, Jim isn’t your average 27-year-old. A bit about his military background might answer the question more clearly.

In 2004 at age 19, Jim enlisted in the army. Like many young men who join the military, Jim was looking for some direction and structure in his life and, ultimately, a path to further his education. He started as a combat engineer, or what he calls “a grunt with a shovel,” on building and demolition jobs. While in training in Maryland, Jim moved up to an intelligence collector in forensics. During his first deployment to Iraq in 2007, he did bomb disposal and forensic analysis.

When he first returned to the states, he was stationed in Hawaii working as an engineer. At that point, Jim was supposed to get out of the Army having completed his four-year contract, but a “stop-loss” order extended his service. He was then shipped to Missouri for training in route clearance, which is the process of looking for and clearing bombs and other explosive devices. He returned to Iraq in 2009 to do route clearance, completing a second yearlong deployment in that country.

When Jim returned from Iraq in 2010, he was extremely eager to start pursuing his college education, which already had been delayed a year. Understandably nervous about another overseas assignment preventing him from enrolling in school, Jim sought advice on his best options. He settled on joining the National Guard, which guaranteed him no deployment for two years and, by that time, his eight years of military service will be complete. Under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, Jim has been able to complete two years at Wentworth and is more passionate than ever about continuing his coursework and getting his degree.

“I aspire to be a successful designer and architect, but right now my skills are in building and management. I hope in the future I can find a job that satisfies my creative urge and is driven by the skills that I have developed.”

The staff and Board of the West End Museum sincerely thank Jim for his Herculean efforts creating the stunning and fascinating model ropewalk, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for his service to our country.