Water Works: The Art of Boatbuilder Peter Hornbeck

by Elizabeth Folwell | Guide to the Great Outdoors 2023

Honey Hole, by Peter Hornbeck

Pete Hornbeck and I shared a birthday, though we were born 10 years apart. My sign is definitely Capricorn, my stubborn little goat feet firmly planted. Pete was an Aquarius for sure, the water bearer was his spirit guide.

But Aquarius is not a water sign, as you might think; it’s an air sign. His creative streak fluidly combined air and water in canoe design along with scores of Adirondack landscapes. His favorite medium was watercolor, evoking Winslow Homer in scenes of rushing streams bordered by deep woods, guides in canoes, fishermen casting for a rise. These paintings often were not literal but interpretations of places he knew well from more than half a century of exploring the Adirondacks.

What Pete searched for was the free expression of place through translucent washes and broad strokes in cloud-studded skies framing foregrounds with subtle detail: a blue boat navigating the rapids, a white wave curling over a rock, the action clear just through a gesture. As he honed his craft, he could make a garden out of dabs of color. Over time, he gave light drama and subtlety, seeking the ideal of a work that appears effortless, imaginative and believable all at once. On paper he honored places he wanted to be, and places you wanted to find.

As Pete’s 45-year boatbuilding career became increasingly successful, he wanted to spend more time with brushes and colors rather than Kevlar and epoxy. He built a studio above his Olmstedville workshop and often retreated there to sketch. When his son-in-law, Josh Trombley, became CEO of Hornbeck Boats in 2018, Pete’s time to paint was secure.

Pete often presented new customers with a print of a nameless pond. It is a lovely scene, though a bit generic. Something was missing. That changed when he took a Sharpie and drew the outline of a canoe on the water and scrawled the buyer’s name, finished with Pete’s own signature. 

He drew remarkable portraits of neighbors, friends and family, complete with wrinkles and flyaway hair. Paintings of his wife, Ann, are poignant, whimsical and truthful, capturing moments they shared. He loved cartooning, using postcards to comment on Adirondack political and environmental issues—or just to generate a smile. When his daughter, Leigh, was in college, he sent a postcard every day.

Pete died suddenly in December 2020 at age 77. His passing led to broader appreciation of his art—in exhibitions at Tannery Pond Center, in North Creek; Traditional Arts of Upstate New York, in Canton; and Tupper Arts Center. There, visitors saw an astonishing number of paintings and drawings, including the portrait of his beagle, Flopsy, completed when Pete was just a 12-year-old kid in Hamburg, New York.

Flopsy was pure Hornbeck even then, quirky, faithfully rendered, expressing something he loved. 


Over five decades, Peter Hornbeck perfected ultralight solo pack canoes and developed numerous other designs for recreational paddling and racing. His designs incorporate many adaptations to make the watercraft stable, maneuverable, comfortable to sit in, simple to paddle and easy to carry. Learn more at www.hornbeckboats.com.


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