Apply for an Artist Fellowship in the Traditional Arts

September 7th, 2017

Mass Cultural Council is pleased to announce that guidelines and applications are currently available for the next round of  Artist Fellowships in the traditional arts.

Recent recipients include architectural woodcarver Dimitrios Klitsas, Cambodian ceramicist Yary Livan, Irish flute player Shannon Heaton, wooden boatbuilder Harold A. Burnham, and Malian balaphon player Balla Kouyaté. To see a complete list of past fellows in the Traditional Arts category, see here. All were recognized for their artistic excellence within art forms that are deeply rooted in traditional and ethnic culture.

The traditional arts include music, craft, dance, and verbal arts that are created and preserved within communities defined by cultural connections such as a common ethnic heritage, language, religion, occupation, or geography. Whether sung or told, handcrafted or performed, traditional art forms reflect a community’s shared sense of aesthetic heritage. The folk and traditional arts typically are learned during the course of daily living from someone steeped in the tradition, rather than through books, classes, or other means of institutional instruction. Artist Fellowships are for individuals not groups.

Fellowships in the traditional arts are awarded biennially. The postmark deadline to apply is October 2, 2017.

 

 

Angkor Dance Troupe’s impact

August 28th, 2017

Take a listen to this podcast about how ancient Cambodian dance continues to embolden youths in Lowell, Massachusetts. Anita Walker, Executive Director of Mass Cultural Council, speaks with Linda Sopheap Sou. Linda’s parents moved to Lowell in 1981 as Cambodian Refugees. Her father, Tim Thou, is co-founder of Angkor Dance Troupe.

Linda danced with the troupe for 25 years and spent several years as the dance troupe’s executive director. She currently works at Lowell Community Health Center.

Of Native wampum, scrimshaw, & copper cuffs

June 27th, 2017

Here are a few more craft artists you can look forward to meeting in the folklife area of the 2017 Lowell Folk Festival. Native craftspeople from Massachusetts and Rhode Island will be in Lucy Larcom Park, demonstrating and talking about their work with quahogs, deer antler bone, and copper.

And in one tent, it will be a family affair. Patricia James-Perry and her children James and Elizabeth are highly skilled artists whose work draws inspiration from the skills and craftsmanship of their Wampanoag ancestors.

Patricia James-Perry’s family roots are deeply planted in Wampanoag ancestral lands on Aquinnah, Martha’s Vineyard. One could say she was born into the tradition of scrimshanding, the once common art of hand-crafting decorative and functional items from salvaged whale ivory. She fondly recalls the abundance of scrimshaw in her 1940s-childhood home in New Bedford – her grandmother’s ivory sewing needles, pendants inscribed with tiny whaling scenes, niddy-noddies for yarn, rolling pins, and pie crimpers.

The Wampanoag people of Massachusetts/Eastern Rhode Island were inshore whale hunters and later heavily involved in New England’s global whaling industry. Gay Head whalers were prized for their hunting prowess and navigational skills. Patricia’s grandfather, Henry Gray James, was a career whale man, as was her uncle, Joseph Belain. Family stories tell of Belain twice leading captain and crew to safety, after their ship became ice-bound in the Arctic.

Patricia inherited her whaling ancestors’ tools and her families’ supply of whale teeth. In the 1970s, she carved scrimshaw at LaFrance’s Jewelers in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

With small children, making scrimshaw became difficult for Patricia, along with changing laws governing marine mammal items. Patricia is making scrimshaw again, but now using polished deer antler. Elizabeth and Jonathan James-Perry plan to apprentice with their mother, keeping scrimshanding in the family and maintaining the Native identity it rightly deserves.

Wampum artist Elizabeth James-Perry is a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah. Her work is strongly influenced by finely crafted ancient wampum adornment and lore, as well as her late Wampanoag mentors and cousins Nanepashemut and Helen Attaquin.

Man's Wampum armband Montaup; Wampanoag wampum; 2013: N. Dartmouth, Massachusetts; Purple and white wampum shell beads, cotton warps; 2

Elizabeth harvests quahog and conch shells from local waters, sorting them by size and color. Using the rich layered purples of the quahog shell and softer conch shell, Elizabeth sculpts patterned whale and fish effigies and thick wampum beads.

Her earrings often contrast the purple and white of quahog shells with the white of deer antler or bone. The combination gives the earrings color and textural variety, while subtly expressing the link between land and ocean. Using shell appliqué, she makes star medallions and finely-woven wide purple gauntlet cuff bracelets, both emblems of traditional Native leadership.

Elizabeth’s art is a form of Native storytelling and genealogy relating to coastal North Atlantic life. She grew up watching her mother Patricia execute tiny whaling scenes on bone scrimshaw, and shared her Wampanoag families’ whaling history in Living with Whales, a book by Nancy Shoemaker. When the historic whaling vessel Charles W. Morgan was newly refurbished, Elizabeth sailed on-board its 38th voyage as a descendant of the Gay Head and Christiantown tribal crewmembers. In 2014, she was awarded a Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship in the traditional arts.

Jonathan James-Perry grew up in a creative household surrounded by music, sculpting, beadwork, and scrimshaw, all coming out of rich Wampanoag traditions. He practices an impressive variety of indigenous art forms including making effigy pipes, copper jewelry, engraved slate pendants, burl bowls and platters, wooden hair combs incised with Native motifs, boat paddles, boats, and flint knapped stone tools. He works with locally sourced woods, stone, and metals.

His preferred metal to work in is copper as it holds a special meaning and significance for Eastern Native people. “Copper’s reflective surface is evocative of the warmth of the sun and is considered medicinal as well as being ideal for adornment.” Jonathan cold hammers and draws out the metal, forming long copper thunder bird breastplates, lunar gorget neck plates, and gauntlet cuffs. He then hand-presses designs into the metal’s smooth finish, embossing them with either abstract edge work or clan animal shapes. These embellishments are inspired by those found in ancient Wampanoag material culture — basketry, tattooing, stone carving, and pottery stamps. Concave discs represent the moon, a repeating double curve may represent growth or a whale’s spout out on the ocean.  As a 2017 Community Spirit Award recipient from the First Peoples Fund, Jonathan is committed to passing on his knowledge to the next generation.

In an adjacent festival tent, you will find Narragansett wampum artist Allen Hazard, who has been making wampum for the last 30 years.

Among Eastern Woodland Tribes, wampum has traditionally been used as adornment in the fashioning of beads for necklaces, earrings, and belts and as a medium of trade. Allen shares that the word “wampum” comes from the Narragansett word for ‘white shell.’ The quahog is a hard shell clam once found in abundance along coastal New England waters. The meat of the quahog has long been valued as a source of highly nutritious food. The white shell and deep purple inside of the shell continues to be highly prized as a material for fashioning beads.”

Allen acquired his skills from his mother Sarah (Fry) Hazard and other Narragansett elders as a child. Creating a single tubular bead from the hard shell of the quahog is a time-consuming task. Using replicas of old school wampum tools, Allen let’s people see how wampum beads were created before the availability of power tools. He has introduced modern tools into the process, including a wet saw to cut the clamshell, and a Dremel to smooth, bore, and polish the final product.

Allen’s wampum beads, necklaces, and belts are made in an old style so they can be worn with traditional Eastern Woodland regalia. He and his wife Patricia run the Purple Shell store in Charlestown, Rhode Island.

 

Of Saddles and Horse Fly Blankets

June 15th, 2017

Festival season is upon us once again. We have a wonderful line-up of craft artists who will be demonstrating at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. This year’s folklife area features individuals whose work has tangible ties to land or sea, for example, market baskets woven from homegrown willow, Native wampum forged from locally harvested quahog shells, and yarn spun from the fleece of grazing sheep. Craft traditions evolve from the human response to utilitarian needs and the quest for beauty. A hand-crafted wooden ship’s wheel with its polished brass hub looks beautiful and feels good in the hand.

In this post, we introduce you to three crafts people whose work is related in some way to horse fittings. Did you ever wonder how leather is formed into lasting saddles that benefit both rider and horse? Do you know how a western saddle differs from an English saddle? And what about keeping flies off of horses?

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Horseback riders in eastern Massachusetts predominantly ride English style, while those in the western part of the state favor western saddles. Lucky for them, they can rely on the craftsmanship of Keith LaRiviere of Orange, Massachusetts, who may be the only western saddle and tack maker in New England. LaRiviere is a parachute rigger by training with 37 years’ experience as a skydiving jump instructor, parachute rigger, and jump pilot. So why saddles? Blame his wife Jane’s need for repair of her horse tack, says Keith. His familiarity with repairing parachuting harnesses led to his slowly accumulating the tools and skills to work on leather horse tack. “I started out small, basically doing repairs and making headstalls and bridles, chaps and chinks.”

Inspired, Keith went on to study saddle making with Colorado saddler Jesse Smith and apprentice with New Hampshire harness maker Russ Bigelow. The apprenticeship was a chance to build a show harness for a draft horse and a replica of an 1859 saddle, the one used by US Cavalry during the Civil War. In addition to the two to three saddles he builds a year, Keith repairs old ones with tender loving care. Beyond saddles, Keith has made or fitted several pieces for Civil War reenactors, created harmonica cases, tool cases, and holsters for modern cowboy mounted shooters.

Tony Cooper of Royalston, Massachusetts has been making, fitting, and repairing saddles since 1984. A native of Dublin, Ireland, he received his training in leatherwork at Cordwainers College, London, where he focused on rural saddlery. Tony completed his saddlery training, was elected to the Guild of Master Craftsmen, and returned to New England and started knocking on barn doors.

A proper saddle gives support to the rider, while distributing the rider’s weight on the horse. If the horse is comfortable under the saddle, it moves more freely, enabling horse and rider to perform optimally as a single unit. “I contour the bottom of the English saddle to fit the horse’s shape.”

In addition to making a saddle from scratch, much of Tony’s time is spent refurbishing, replacing, or rebuilding all parts of a saddle. This can involve re-stuffing panels and converting felt and foam panels to wool; replacing worn seats, skirts, knee rolls, billets and flaps; enlarging panels by adding gussets; and adjusting and repairing trees, the wooden framework of the saddle. Tony likes that there are certain parts of saddle making that must be done by hand. Like sewing – using an awl to punch holes, he sews 12 stitches to the inch, just like a skilled quilter.

Barbara Merry of Wakefield, Rhode Island excels in the maritime tradition of knot tying, fashioning rope into nautical fenders, beckets (decorative rope handles), and other useful marine lines. She recently revived the art of making Victorian-style horse fly blankets, which were once used solely for the purpose of keeping biting flies off horses.

Today, some kind of blanket remains in demand, particularly among discriminating horse owners who choose not to use petroleum-based fly repellent on their animals. Called “swish” blankets and made of nylon, these blankets are woven in two sizes (draft horse and buggy horse). Back in the early 1800s, the material of choice was strips of leather stitched together. In time, the blankets “morphed” into ornate objects, beautifully knotted in natural fiber cordage.

Women excelled at this type of work. It was usually done by wives, sweethearts, and daughters after finishing or repairing nets for their fisherman. It was only natural that these women would turn this skill to the manufacture of horse fly blankets for customers in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston — big cities where there were a lot of flies!

All three craft artists will be demonstrating in the Folklife area of the Lowell Folk Festival this July 29 and 30, 2017.

Maggie Holtzberg manages the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at Mass Cultural Council.

“Hiding in Plain Sight” Concert Brings the World to Rockport

May 17th, 2017

Despite gale force winds and rain on Mothers’ Day, the show went on. And what a show it was! We were delighted to have the opportunity to showcase a sampling of our state’s traditional artists to perform at one of the country’s most stunning concert halls — the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts. Performers were either past or current recipients of an Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship or Traditional Arts Apprenticeship. We’re happy to share some images shot by photographer Brendan Mercure.

No fewer that 20 members of Lawrence’s Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts opened the show by processioning from the back of the hall, down the aisles and up onto the stage.

Mass Cultural Council executive director Anita Walker gave a warm welcome to all in attendance, pointing out the richness of hidden treasures we have in the Commonwealth, many of whom have come here as immigrants.

 

I followed her by introducing our South Indian Carnatic musicians, which included two master artists, Tara Anand Bangalore and Gaurish Chandrashekhar, and three apprentices, Sudarshan Thirumalai, Pratik Bharadwadj, and Kaasinath Balagurunath. A purely musical segment was followed by Bharatanatyam dancer Sridevi Thirumalai.

The second half of the show opened with a beautiful set of Irish music by Joey Abarta, Matt and Shannon Heaton, and sean nos dancer Kieran Jordan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We closed the concert with West African music and dance led by virtuoso balafon player Balla Kouyaté and master drummer/dancer Sidi “Joh” Camara. Both are considered hereditary artists, meaning they were born into the tradition.

  

Joining them on the stage was the next generation — Tiemoko Camara and Jossira and Sekou Balla Kouyaté — all of whom show great promise in carrying the traditions forward.

 

Balla stood up to invite audience members to join them on stage to dance.

Jossira helped by stepping down off the stage and reaching out her hand, encouraging people to join her. It worked – even 18-month old Maiya Camara got into the act.

Then it was time for a final bow. One of the magical things that happens when you bring musicians together from different world traditions is that they soon find common ground. This often happens back stage, behind the scenes. As one of our stage managers Sara Glidden pointed out, “All of you in the audience missed one of the highlights – the Indian musicians in the green room, jamming along to the video/audio feed of the Irish musicians on stage.”

Postscript: This email from leader of the Dominican masqueraders Stelvyn Mirabal gets to the heart of what our work as folklorists is all about. “I was received like a hero at my work on Monday. My Human Resources boss was at the show on Sunday and she didn’t know I was involved in the event until she saw me there. She took some pictures and posted in the company website. Then everyone was congratulating me for the show. She loved it!! Thanks again for thinking of us for your show.”

Talk about “hiding in plain sight”!

Maggie Holtzberg manages the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the Mass Cultural Council.

 

 

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Folk Masters of Massachusetts Showcase Concert

April 11th, 2017

We are excited to announce a May 14  showcase concert featuring the excellence and diversity of music and dance traditions thriving in Massachusetts today. Performers are past or current recipients of an Artist Fellowship or Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, prestigious awards granted by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Come experience a Dominican carnival procession led by Stelvyn  Mirabal, then be enthralled by leading exponents of South Indian vocals, violin, and percussion, Irish flute, uilleann pipe and old style step dance, and West African balafon (xylophone), djembe drum, and ceremonial dance. The concert will take place at the stunningly beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts on Sunday May 14 at 5:00 pm.

Carnatic music of South India is one of the oldest music systems in the world. Built upon talas (rhythmic cycles) and ragas (melodic scales), the basic transmission of this venerable South Indian tradition is done via face-to-face lessons in which the guru vocalizes first and then demonstrates the lesson.

  

   

Irish tradition has deep roots in Massachusetts. Tunes once played at crossroad dances traveled the ocean in the hearts, hands, and feet of Irish immigrants. Boston in known for its active scene of pub sessions, concerts, competitions, and classes.

  

  

In parts of Mali, West Africa, dance, music, and song are an integral part of everyday life. Birth, death, initiation rites, and marriage are all marked with specific dances and songs. Many musicians and dancers are hereditary artists, meaning they are born into the tradition.

 

The concert will take place at the stunningly beautiful Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts on Sunday May 14 at 5:00 pm.  A perfect outing for Mother’s Day!

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the  Massachusetts Cultural Council.

 

Apprenticeships Matter

March 13th, 2017

Back in 2005, we funded an apprenticeship in icon writing that supported renowned Russian iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky to work with apprentice Sr. Faith Riccio. The centuries-old artistic tradition of iconography requires the application of very specific techniques and image representations that have been passed down from artist to artist through the ages.

Ksenia Pokrovsky is widely credited with reviving the writing of traditional Russian icons. She learned at a time when Russia nearly lost the old method of writing icons, due to Soviet restrictions on religious expression. Ksenia was encouraged to learn in 1967 by a priest, Reverend Aleksander Men, whom she considers her “spiritual father.” Students from all over the world come to study with Ksenia Pokrovsky.

To hear Ksenia’s distinctive voice, listen below to a radio feature we did with her on WUMB radio.

Sister Faith Riccio lives in an abbey on Cape Cod, where they are interested in keeping old art forms alive. She explains how she came to icon writing, “. . . My prioress asked if I would learn icons. I started out kind of on my own . . . I found [Ksenia] on the Internet. And she said, ‘Well, you really don ‘t know what you ‘re doing, ‘ in her just wonderful, diplomatic way. I said, ‘No, I don ‘t. And I ‘ll keep doing that if you don ‘t help me.'” A  Traditional Arts Apprenticeship awarded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program was added incentive. Sister Faith spent significant time in the Pokrovsky household working under Ksenia’s guidance. Ksenia considered Sister Faith one of her best students, “She has the time to devote to this; she works very hard. ”

The two women were in close touch until 2013 when Ksenia Pokrovsky passed away. The world lost a remarkable artist. Fortunately, her technique and artistry lives on in those she mentored. We were delighted to learn that Sr. Faith has just published a book,  Icons: The Essential Collection. A large collection of her icons are currently on display at the  Church of the Transfiguration, which includes installations of mosaics, true fresco, bronze and glass. Sr. Faith will be speaking at the Community of Jesus on Friday March 17 at 2:00 pm.

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the  Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Restoring the Maria

March 6th, 2017

 

One of the MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeships being funded this year is to master shipwright and National Heritage Fellow Harold A. Burnham and his son Alden Burnham in wooden boat restoration — a skill that is becoming increasingly endangered. As Harold pointed out in his application, “Since the advent and acceptance of modern materials (mainly fiberglass and steel) for boat and shipbuilding, the wooden shipbuilding industry has all but disappeared, and many of the supporting industries, the requisite skills, and means of passing them on have gone with it.”

The goal of the apprenticeship is to rebuild and restore The Maria, a 23-foot vessel based on the lines of a historic Maine lobster smack. Named for Alden’s grandmother, she was the first vessel Alden’s grandfather built in 1971. The Maria was the perfect size for the young family to sail up and down the New England coast. But in 1972, she was sold out of the family to fund an overseas vacation. When Harold was in high school, he tried to buy her back, offering a more than fair price, but the owner wouldn’t sell. Harold was patient, finally buying the sloop in an estate sale in 2008. By that time, she was in pretty rough shape; large amounts of rot were found in her keel. The MCC apprenticeship was just the incentive Harold and his son Alden needed to finally get to work on rebuilding and restoring Maria.

The family connection was one reason to salvage her, but Harold pointed out others, “There are compelling reasons for repairing or rebuilding an old boat, and as important as the reasons are the lessons that can be learned. Old boats teach you about the materials, the techniques, and the culture of the people that built them.”

Harold A. Burnham’s life revolves around building or operating boats. He started building and restoring boats in the family shipyard in Essex, where boatbuilding has been not only a family tradition, but part of the culture, dating back to the early seventeenth century. This black and white portrait shows three generations of Burnhams, with Alden in the center.

Although building full-scale historic representations of indigenous fishing vessels for use in cultural tourism has helped rekindle an interest in the region’s maritime traditions, Harold is the first to admit that it has not been a lucrative or easy way of life. “People always used to ask [my father] why he thought he could build boats,” Alden recalls. “His answer to them was simple and yet profound; He knew that he could do it because his father had done it, and he knew people that had done it, and through their efforts, they found a way.”

Alden Burnham, who is now one full year out of college, has grown up around boats. He recalls that when he was 14 years old, an old gray skeleton of a wooden sailboat was dropped in the mud behind their family house on the marsh. He rebuilt the 11-foot turnabout and had a front row seat as the double sawn frame, trunnel-fastened schooners Fame, Isabella, and Ardelle came together outside his house in the shipyard. He appreciates, now more than ever before, what he is father and grandfather can teach him.

We paid a visit to the Burnham shipyard on an unseasonably warm late February morning. Muck and snow melt all around the yard foretold the mud season soon to come. We entered the “barn” where The Maria took up three quarters of the space on the ground floor. We gathered around her to take a look at the progress being made.

Harold, in his characteristic dry humor, remarked, “And you can see, it’s nice and neat in here. No trip and fall hazards.” We watched our step.

“So tell us what we’re seeing right here,” I said.

“Well, you can see that the keel is new. The first thing we did was take the whole keel off and put a new keel in it. All the ribs are getting sisted.”

“Sisted,” I repeated, not familiar with the term. “How do you spell that?”

Alden, who was nearby by a board through the table saw, piped up, “Sistered.” (Sistering is basically a construction term meaning to strengthen or reinforce a structural member by attaching a stronger piece to a weaker one.)

While we were there, Harold and Alden worked independently. Alden was busy preparing new ribs, using the planer and the table saw.  The day before, Alden had steamed, bent, and installed seven ribs.

In this photo below, you can see the recently installed ribs which are untrimmed.

While Alden concentrated on planing and sanding ribs, Harold was busy threading and painting a piece of pipe that will connect to the rudder. “That’s really the trickiest part — the mechanical end. Like how to connect the metal to the wood — the engine to the boat, the rudder to the boat.”

 

It turns out that working on The Maria is the perfect learning situation. In Harold’s words, “This boat is a nice size . . . The nice thing is is that all the installation of an inboard engine, the rigging, the propeller shaft and shaft log and the rudder and all of the geometry of how to put all the metal and wood together, is the same on this as it is on a large boat. This is great learning tool. . . If he falls in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, this boat will be too small for him in fairly short order.”

Five months into the project, Harold and Alden have replaced the keel, sternpost, and worn timber for Maria as well as many frames. They’ve gotten the shaft log ready and the hole prepared for the rudder port. Now that the weather is warming up and the daylight hours longer, they will make real progress. Next up is sistering all of timbers, re-planking her hull, replacing her deck and cabin, installing an engine and systems, building new spars and rigging, and making sails for the vessel. They’ve set a launch date of May 27th.

 

Fellows Notes: Shannon Heaton launches “Irish Music Stories” podcast

February 14th, 2017

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Shannon Heaton ( MCC Artist Fellow 2016) has just launched the inaugural episode of her podcast, ” Irish Music Stories.”  She takes us from Boston to Chicago to County Clare, Ireland, where we hear from young players and older masters alike. They reflect on the tunes and how they are learned, the excitement of competing in competitions, and the sense of community that is forged through the multi-generational sharing of the music. It’s like a Valentine’s Day gift to Irish traditional music lovers around the world.  Great work Shannon. We look forward to hearing more episodes.

 

Bringing a Skill Forward: Apprenticeship in Ship Wheel Making

February 2nd, 2017

FullerApp_Bob_holding_wheel  FullerApp_cranberry

Master craftsman Bob Fuller was fortunate to have grown up in a boat building family, where he apprenticed under his father and grandfather. The family developed the Edson Yacht Wheel and has been making wheels for Edson International in New Bedford, Massachusetts since 1965.

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In 1990, Bob founded his own shop,   South Shore Boatworks, which specializes in custom boat building, finishing and restoration work, and handmade wooden ship’s wheels. In fact, Bob Fuller may be the only craftsman in the country today who is still making wooden ship wheels by hand. This highly specialized maritime craft involves pattern making, metal working, marine joinery, and fine woodworking. There are only a limited number of places to learn marine joinery. Although a few boatbuilding schools exist along the New England coast, one of the best ways to learn is one-on-one under the guidance of a skilled master.

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Bob Fuller and John O’Rourke were awarded an MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship last fall. They typically meet on Sunday mornings from 8:30 to noon. We were there to check in on their progress and observe some of the In late January, Russell Call and I paid a visit to his South Shore Boatworks in Hanson, Massachusetts. You might expect such a place to be situated on the water, but it’s located in an Industrial Park, 30 miles from the coast!

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John is a recent graduate of the North Bennett Street School where he earned a degree in preservation carpentry. “I learned mostly historic buildings, nothing about maritime woodwork or marine joinery. In preservation I learned to restore historic structures, historic windows. Try to keep things that were made by hand a long time ago around. So this is very similar. And trying to keep the craft alive.” In contrast, Bob adds, “I don’t work in houses. I chose to work on things where nothing is ever straight. And generally on boats, if something looks straight or looks plumb, it’s wrong.”

Before showing us what they were currently working on, Bob oriented us by explaining the terminology of a ship’s wheel. “Basically, you’ve got the hub, it’s either bronze or it’s chrome plated, but it’s a piece of bronze. And then you have the spokes. The spokes go from inside the hub out. And then you have the pieces in-between here. I call them segments. Some people call them fellows, which is a word that has more to do with wheel making, like for carts. And then on the top of it, this is a band – it kind of bands things together. And then beyond that, on the spoke, you have the king spoke, which that designates, gives you a reference to where the steering should be neutral.”

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These three turnings along the top of the king spoke has always been the family’s signature. “It gives you a sense of feel, especially if you’re operating the boat at night where you can’t have a lot of lights on inside the cabin because it will just blind you, you can’t see out. This way you have a sense as to where the steering is.”

The wheel John was currently working on when we visited is about 2/3rd done. Twenty-eight inches in diameter, it has eight spokes. “There’s a lot that goes into the actual finishing of it, Bob stresses. “Sanding it, hand sanding and then lots of coats of sealer and varnish. . . The wheel I just finished for a customer, the process, the varnishing, was a total of two coats of sealer, and eight coats of hand varnish. And it was a big wheel. It took me roughly two weeks to finish it.” A wheel like this sells for between $2,800 and $3,000. The price can go up from there depending on its complexity, that is, whether is has additional brass band on top or custom engraving on the hub.

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In addition to building wheels for Edson, Bob Fuller has customers around the world. Last year he was commissioned to build a wheel for the 50-foot, passenger-carrying lobster boat that services Acadia National Park. High profile wheels include a replacement wheel for Robert Kennedy’s wooden yawl Glide. 

It was interesting to hear Bob talk about a recent wheel  commission for the new luxury fiberglass motor yacht Cakewalk, built by Derecktor Shipyards. “It was an afterthought. The whole bridge on this boat was set up for using computer settings and all that kind of stuff, but both the captains, an Australian and an American captain, they felt strongly that that boat need a wheel and it would have looked really funny without it. It’s kind of strange today because, with all the computerized stuff — the joy sticks, they call it ‘fly-by-wire’ — a lot of boats don’t have steering wheels anymore. But it’s such a part of our heritage and tradition, that I think it’s going to continue onward.

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“We’re preserving the skills to move this forward for a couple of generations. It is just such a part of our maritime tradition, in Massachusetts especially. Shipbuilding, fishing, boat-building, that’s why I feel strongly about this. I learned from my grandfather and father, apprenticing with them. And, if it wasn’t for a situation like what I’m doing with John, I also have someone else that works with me too that’s learning, but not part of the official apprenticeship – where would someone learn this?”

“It’s a great atmosphere when you can teach people the skills that are required to do a craft. It’s been a great opportunity to show this to John in the apprenticeship, to bring a skill forward. . . . this is part of our heritage, as I mentioned before. This needs to be brought into the future. Largely, that’s what the [Massachusetts] Cultural Council is good at, whereas this is such a small niche, it’s hard to, you don’t really fit into someone’s idea of being an industry, but it really is a cottage industry. And that’s what’s kind of going along the wayside. Skills get lost for generations and then all of a sudden, no one knows how to do it anymore.”

Maggie Holtzberg runs the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at the  Massachusetts Cultural Council. Photos by Russell Call.


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