It’s cold and gusty in the middle of February, and Mark O’Grasso stands beneath the motorized, retractable awning of the heatless, 400-square foot garage that acts as his workshop. As a woodworker, O’Grasso must carve outdoors to avoid inhaling any miniscule wood shavings. He enjoys the process, but it’s a simpler (and warmer) one during the summer, when a refreshing sea breeze carries the sound of crashing waves to the doors of his gallery.
In 2019 when O’Grasso opened Rusty Anchor Trading in Asbury Park, New Jersey, he was certain of only two things: his passion for woodwork and the desire to run his own business. He studied fine arts in college and even became a certified art teacher, but rather than continue to pursue teaching, he wanted to create.
Back in 2005, O’Grasso opened a surf shop on Long Beach Island where he began carving tikis out of materials he had shipped from Bali. After a warm reception from the locals, he and a business partner opened a second shop. However, when Hurricane Sandy hit, the two shops were in a difficult position financially. Because of his family, O’Grasso put entrepreneurship on hold. However, after taking some time away from business ownership, he began to refocus on the process of creating texture within his art. Texture has the ability to give life and depth to an otherwise inanimate object, which is why so many artists favor painting the ocean.
O’Grasso didn’t revisit woodwork professionally until 2018. He began by creating small, hand-carved whales to highlight the aesthetic textures of the grain in distinct types of wood. By pulling the grain out of the wood—which is a challenging task—O’Grasso’s pieces exude a liveliness that is hard to come by in woodwork. The textures within the grain create a vibrant, multi-dimensional piece that would otherwise appear flat and dull, and each type of wood gives the piece a unique weight, shape, texture, and appearance.
O’Grasso works with cedar, oak, locust, pine, and catalpa woods, to name a few. Once painting and shading is complete, the subject of each piece appears as if could swim off the wall at any moment, as visibility of the now-colored wood grain provides both depth and perceived mobility. When he sold out of his customized wooden whales at a farmer’s market in 2018, O’Grasso realized there was a demand for this style of art that nobody else in coastal New Jersey had tapped into.
The allure of his work comes from not only his unique woodworking style, but from his desire to create something appealing. Rather than focus his pieces solely on subjects of the sea, he realized there is a demand in various avenues including music and pop culture. Although he has spent countless hours creating life-sized fish replicas, he’s also carved and painted large-scale logos of rock bands like the Foo Fighters and a 56-inch-tall Homer Simpson. Still, with O’Grasso’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, he prefers to spend his free time working on pieces like whales, fish, and marine life.
The association of wooden boats and driftwood with the sea is part of what gives his already aquatic-themed pieces such a nautical feel; that, and the convenient location of Rusty Anchor Trading in Asbury Park. The gallery is a mere five-minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean’s crashing waves, which have also become a subject of O’Grasso’s art. His biggest carve to date is a 16-foot cresting wave that was shipped off to a business in Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands. He has even constructed a 9-foot long, 3-foot-wide whale out of 30 pounds of cedar wood. Both works were time-consuming yet rewarding accomplishments that have taken O’Grasso’s work to new heights.
He spends seven days a week carving because each piece can take days to complete. While this is a tall order for a man with only one other employee, he is able to find balance in his work. When he is not creating custom pieces for his clients, O’Grasso takes time to fill the spaces on his gallery walls, which quickly empty as summer crowds explore the shop. He fills the spaces with creative works that he feels his customers will identify with, including colorful depictions of tuna, striped bass, mahi, crabs, lobsters, octopus, and more.
The future remains unclear for O’Grasso, but that’s fine with him. His small but unique gallery along the Jersey Shore was never planned for, and he’s comfortable without a specific direction for now. He plans to launch a website in the near future to showcase and sell his art to a broader audience while he pursues his next large-scale piece. Today, he enjoys riding the wave of success that has come as a result of the waves he carves and paints.
For More Information:
- Follow Rusty Anchor Trading on Instagram: @rustyanchortrading
- Visit Mark’s Gallery At:
Rusty Anchor Trading
611 Cookman Ave. Asbury Park, NJ