Sal Polisi spent his life awash in mermaids.
For more than 30 years, Mr. Polisi, a master woodcarver who died on Jan. 18, at 79, was a constant, gregarious presence at the South Street Seaport Museum in Lower Manhattan. There, he spent six days a week transforming wood into signs, sculptures, ships’ figureheads and the like, while simultaneously explaining his craft to a steady tide of visitors.
Besides making art for the seaport, where he had volunteered his skills since the mid-1980s, Mr. Polisi also did carving and restoration work for museums, businesses and private collectors around the country. On any given day, his workshop at the seaport’s Maritime Craft Center — a jury-rigged affair made of two shipping containers, long located near Pier 15 on the East River — could teem with fish and fowl; sirens and sea captains; a great wooden lobster, destined for a restaurant; and immense wooden teeth, destined for a dentist.
Mr. Polisi’s work can be found in Fraunces Tavern, the Revolutionary War-era restaurant and museum in Lower Manhattan, for which he made reproduction signs; on the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, for which he created a figurehead of a goose in flight; on the Honey Fitz, the yacht once owned by President John F. Kennedy, for which he carved a wooden name board; and at the New York Police Department’s 40th Precinct station house, in the Bronx, for which he carved a statue of an eagle.
At the seaport, Mr. Polisi’s work included Penelope, the seven-foot figurehead of the Wavertree, an 1885 sailing ship owned by the museum. Per 19th-century standards of beauty, Penelope emerged from his workshop with a double chin.
Mr. Polisi was quite literally a chiseler, working only with hand tools, as his forebears had in centuries past, before embellishing his carvings with paint or gold leaf.
“If you use electric tools like a Dremel or electric sander, you’re disappointing the people who are coming to see you,” he said in “New York Waters,” a 2007 book by Ben Gibberd in which he is profiled. “So it’s easier to use the chisel and chop away, and everybody is happy.”
Salvatore Polisi was born on Oct. 13, 1935, in Brooklyn and reared in the East New York neighborhood there. He enlisted in the United States Navy at 17 and served aboard an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. He later spent many years as a supervisor at New York Twist Drill, a toolmaker on Long Island. Interested in art since boyhood, he also took night classes in drawing, sculpture and, starting in 1980, woodcarving.
In the mid-’80s, when his company relocated out of state, Mr. Polisi declined to go along. He quit his job, rented out most of his house and offered his services to the seaport, where he remained to the end of his life.
Mr. Polisi’s first marriage, to Ruth Russell, ended in divorce. A resident of Merrick, on Long Island, he is survived by his second wife, Susan Kayser, who confirmed his death, from lung cancer, in Huntington, N.Y.; a son, Harold Michael, from his first marriage; two sisters, Theresa Royer and Marie Arsanian; and a grandson.
Mr. Polisi received no pay from the seaport and charged comparatively little for his private commissions. (A bespoke figurehead might cost $17,000, The Record of northern New Jersey reported in 2009, but it took six months to carve.) The work itself, he often said — the sea creatures taking life in his hands, the opera playing in the background, the notable absence of a time clock — was more than ample reward.
“People would come in, and they’d be jealous,” Mr. Polisi was quoted as saying in Mr. Gibberd’s book. “I’d get people from Wall Street wanting to exchange jobs.”