Charles Buckingham was perusing a number of paintings in the Nicholas Gallery on his first visit to the Erie Art Museum in March when he did a double-take.

The 25-year-old Edinboro University of Pennsylvania student, who is pursuing a master's degree in education, was looking at a work titled "Boat Builders'' by noted Erie painter and teacher Joseph Plavcan.

The painting depicts a scene from the late 1940s or early 1950s at the Erie Yacht Club. Two vessels are in dry dock awaiting maintenance work. Several workers are milling about the vessels, one of which you can distinctly make out the name, "Wren.''

Buckingham immediately recognized the boat.

It's sitting in a barn in Cambridge Springs, near a house that Buckingham rents from the property's owner, Kihm Mishler, a 63-year-old recent retiree who spent the bulk of his career traversing the world as a yacht captain.

The Wren was designed in 1932 in Maine by famed boat designer Fenwick Williams and built between 1936 and 1951, Mishler estimates.

When Mishler bought the "Wren,'' a 23-foot-long sloop — a single-masted vessel — from an Erie boater in 1980, he immediately began extensive renovation work.  

But those plans were soon scuttled when Mishler's career responsibilities interfered. For the next 26 years, Mishler ran yachts in the eastern Caribbean and around the world. For the past 10 years, he has worked in the oil industry, running ships. The Wren project went unfinished, and the vessel has never sailed since Mishler purchased it.    

"I bought the boat to rebuild her,'' Mishler said. "I've recently retired and I'm planning on working on the boat now and trying to get her seaworthy.''

Mishler had no idea his vessel was featured in Plavcan's painting until Buckingham told him.

"It was an interesting experience and feeling,'' Mishler said. "He took a picture of it and texted it to me. I said, 'Yep, that's the Wren.' '' It conjured up a lot of old memories I had of the boat.''

Mishler does not know the origin of the name, Wren, but said he plans to keep the name. Mishler formerly was the captain of a yacht owned by Buckingham's father.

Buckingham was just taking a casual stroll through the museum when he glanced at the painting and saw the Wren.

"I saw the boat and the name on the back. It made me look closer to the actual boat, the structure and the colors, and it's all the same,'' Buckingham said. "Plavcan is sort of a local legend in Erie for artists. Hopefully, they can learn a little bit more about the painting.''

Plavcan died in 1981 at age 72. Erie Art Museum Director John Vanco estimates Plavcan painted "Boat Builders'' in about 1950.

More than a dozen of Plavcan's works are on display at the Erie Art Museum, which has more than 40 Plavcan paintings in its collection.

"He didn't date things consistently, and his style did evolve, but it wasn't a smooth evolution, so it's a little hard to say he did this painting before this one or after that one,'' Vanco said. "That's our best guess.''

Plavcan did not give titles to a lot of his paintings unless his works were specifically exhibited somewhere and he needed to title them.

"After Joe died, his widow went and put titles on all his paintings because a lot of them just didn't have titles,'' Vanco said. "He wasn't consistent about signing them or dating them, or titling them, so 'Boat Builders' is not necessarily the title that Joe gave it, but that's the title we work with because that's what's on the painting. His widow might very well have come up with that title.''

Erie Times-News staff writers share personal stories. Ron Leonardi can be reached at 870-1680. Send email to