Vergennes boatbuilder wins prestigious national fellowship

VERGENNES — Douglas Brooks, a Vergennes resident who builds stunningly beautiful and useful wooden boats by hand, has won a few awards for his fine craftsmanship over the years. But Brooks was really moved when he was named the winner of the American Craft Council Rare Craft Fellowship Award.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me,” Brooks said. “I’ve gotten some prestigious grants to fund my research, and my first book was honored by the Japanese Ministry of Culture, but this is by far the biggest award I have received.”
The Craft Council and fellowship co-sponsor, Scottish whiskey maker The Balvenie, presented the award at an exclusive luncheon at Per Se, celebrity chef Thomas Keller’s swanky restaurant in New York City.
Brooks was one of five finalists, and the winner was chosen by a panel of curators from prestigious institutions including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.
Bill Brooks, executive director of the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History and no relation to Douglas, noted that the American Craft Council has thousands of members and several hundred of the best craftspeople in the country applied for the fellowship.
 “It’s a nationally recognized organization,” Bill Brooks said. “To have him chosen and a Vermonter chosen is very spectacular.”
The fellowship is awarded annually in recognition and support of contributions to the maintenance and revival of traditional or rare crafts in America. To be considered for the Fellowship, individuals must demonstrate a contribution to the preservation of traditional and rare craft techniques, processes, or products and meet a quality criterion. For winning, Brooks will receive a $10,000 endowment to go toward materials and continuing his craft.
He was also awarded a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Scotland, where he will get to spend time at the historic Balvenie distillery, apprenticing under a local craftsman of his choosing. The two-week Fellowship will include a week where Brooks will learn more about the traditional crafts of whisky making while also receiving the rare opportunity to work with legendary malt master David Stewart.
Brooks said he looks forward to seeing the distillery and in particular meeting their coopers, since his first Japanese boat was made essentially using Japanese barrel-making techniques.
Brooks built his first boat in 1980 as a college student in the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program at Mystic Seaport Museum. Brooks earned a philosophy degree from Trinity College in 1982 and graduated in 2002 from the Middlebury College Language School, where he learned Japanese.
In 1990, he made his first trip to Japan to study traditional boatbuilding techniques, methods of which he strives to preserve. Brooks has completed research and several internships with Japanese boatbuilders, documenting the design secrets and techniques of his teachers in an effort to preserve this now-vanishing craft. He continues to make boats for museums and private clients, also teaching and lecturing on both American and Japanese boatbuilding traditions. He also publishes regularly.
Douglas Brooks said the fellowship money will help further his work.
“Obviously this career path has not been a highway to riches, so every little bit helps,” he said. “I am currently trying to raise funds to return to Tohoku (which is in the zone of Japan hit by tsunami) to document the work of the last surviving boatbuilder of that region.”
He noted that this area had perhaps the highest concentration of traditional wooden boats in Japan and it is estimated that 90-95 percent of the boats were destroyed by the 2012 tsunami.
Brooks was in a different part of Japan last summer building a boat in an international arts festival. He was one of 200 artists chosen from around the world to take part. He built a replica of a traditional fishing boat from that region with a Japanese apprentice helping him.
He is also due to return to Japan this April to build a small boat at a museum outside of Kyoto.
“All five of my teachers in Japan were inspiring personalities who have shaped the way I think about my craft as well as my teaching,” Brooks said. “The Japanese apprentice system’s approach to teaching is very different than our western tradition. It is something I think about more and more as I work with students.
But Brooks’ attention is not only focused on Japan. He’s done a fair amount of research on historical boatbuilding locally and has worked with Middlebury students on finding out more about traditional trapping boats. He taught a winter-term course at the college where students build a trapping boat.
“I am looking forward to doing more work documenting the small boat traditions of the Lake Champlain Basin, a subject that has been completely unexplored to date.” he said.
Brooks, along with the Sheldon Museum, recently secured a grant from the Lake Champlain Basin Program to work with students at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center researching and documenting the traditions of trapping boats in Essex County, N.Y., and Addison County, V. He hopes to build replicas of both types of boats with the students next fall.
Bill Brooks said the boatbuilder was very deserving of this recent honor. He had worked with Douglas Brooks when Bill was executive director of the Frog Hollow Vermont State Crafts Center back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s; Douglas had developed and presented some educational programs.
“Douglas is a great craftsman an excellent historian and researcher,” Bill Brooks said. “He’s really quite amazing in the diversity of his skills. Artists aren’t always good researchers and writers but he is, and he’s also an excellent public speaker.”
DOUGLAS BROOKS IS building a version of this boat, called a Tokyo tenmasen, for the Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford, Ill. This spring he will be going to Japan to build a boat at a small museum.

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