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American apprentice builds boats in Japan, to speak about it in Bristol

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Posted on October 12, 2015 |
By Addison Independent



Brooks boat building CMYK.jpg
VERGENNES BOATBUILDER DOUGLAS Brooks built this bekabune, or traditional seaweed gathering boat, with Nobuji Udagawa in 2000 in Urayasu, Japan. Brooks will talk about his experiences as a boatbuilding apprentice in Japan in an illustrated presentation at Lawrence Memorial Library on Thursday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m.

BRISTOL — Douglas Brooks of Vergennes will tell his personal story of apprenticing with elderly Japanese masters to build five unique and endangered traditional Japanese boats in the program “An Apprentice Boat Builder in Japan” on Thursday, Oct. 15, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol. The presentation is hosted by the One World Library Project and sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council through its Speakers Bureau.

In this free slide-talk program, Brooks will share his experiences drawn from 17 trips to Japan where he traveled over 30,000 miles to seek out and interview Japan’s master boatbuilders, all in their 70s and 80s. He built boats with five of these masters between 1996 and 2010 and for most of them, he was their sole and last apprentice. 

His recent book “Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding” chronicles the story of his personal passion to preserve a craft tradition on the verge of extinction. As Japan modernized over the last century, becoming a country of busy urban centers, electronics, manga and anime, its rich history of learning traditional arts and crafts through apprenticeship has been endangered. The loss of demand for traditional boats left Japanese master boatbuilders with no one to teach.

Over a period of 14 years, Brooks worked under a time-honored system of apprenticeship to five elderly master boatbuilders in Japan, sweeping floors and sharpening tools and learning chiefly by observation with only limited direct instruction. His apprenticeships gave him insight into this time-honored but threatened culture, and ultimately he won the trust of these master boatbuilders, who shared their secrets and techniques with an American as a way to pass on their heritage. “My teachers, one of whom was a fourth-generation boatbuilder, were all acutely aware of the volume of information they possessed. They made it very clear how serious our work together was,” says Brooks.

“Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding” is the first book of its kind to document the secrets, traditions and techniques of Japanese wooden boatbuilding, including over 300 color photos and 36 detailed technical drawings. The book has been added to the One World Library Project’s kiosk at the Lawrence Memorial Library, and Brooks will also have copies of the book available for purchase at the program.

Douglas Brooks has been building boats since 1980 and has devoted his work to the appreciation and continued use of traditional wooden boats, including American and English boat types as well as the small boats of Japan. He has built wooden boats for museums, communities and individuals and shares his skills and knowledge through lectures, public demonstration projects and publications. His research is ongoing as he continues to work with elderly Japanese boatbuilders in order to document the skills and techniques of this vanishing craft.

Closer to home, Brooks has been documenting the work of Vermont boatbuilders through a research project sponsored by the Henry Sheldon Museum of Middlebury. For the last two years he and the Sheldon have partnered with the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury researching local boat designs and building replicas. He is also currently teaching a boatbuilding class at UVM and in January will lead students at Middlebury College in the construction of a traditional Japanese boat.

Brooks was chosen from hundred of candidates as the winner of the 2014 Rare Craft Fellowship Award from the American Craft Council. He is also the sole non-Japanese person listed in a 2003 Nippon Foundation survey of craftsmen capable of building traditional Japanese boats. In 2015 he was named an Arts in Action – Japan Fellow by the Asian Cultural Council.

For more information on this program, contact the Lawrence Memorial Library at 453-2366 or go to www.OneWorldLibraryProject.org.

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