Wood, culture and the Hancock Shaker Museum

Cultural influences on crafts and craft work

Of all of the places I visit to look at the work of our fore-bearing woodworkers, some of my favourites are those that depict a cultural way of life that encapsulates a sort of a sustainable wholeness we might seldom see today.

By wholeness I mean a culture that contains within itself a sustainability that doesn’t revolve around saving alluminium cans to serve the same addictive content over and over but hand made goods that will still be in use in a century and more.Today I took a privileged tour of a unique historical village. The village is one I had hoped to see for over two decades and driving through the Berkshires and the town of New Lebanon to Pittsfield, Massachusetts I found once more a spark of life still vibrant in living history under the conservators of the Hancock Shaker Village and its staff.

 Openness – openheartedness and a willingness to share

As I walked into the openness of the museum I felt a gratitude for a legacy preserved for both me and the generations yet to be born that might come to know a people known not so much for their special relationship to good stewardship and orderly management but what they made and how they made it. The Shakers were indeed a religious or more accurately a Christian order with a unique presence extended through their work and it is more the outcome of their work that has intrigued me more through the years than anything else. What I liked here was the openness of the staff, the service they provided, the way they extended themselves to engage with everyone and the freedom I felt in just wandering through each depiction of community artisanry. I often find myself tugged into the past but know that that cannot be. So I glean from their fields the best they still offer today, preserve it in my own work as a practicing craftsman and artisan and present it with the present as an option for others to learn from. There is too much to see in one day and too much to give you in one blog. Ideally I suggest you go there, start with a general walking tour without hardly stopping, eat a wonderful lunch in their cafe, all home made, and then go more in-depth at the things of interest to you.

My fascination for American furniture and crafts started in England

My first experience with American furniture styles was piqued as a result of research I was involved in in my studies back 1985. My studies in furniture making and the North American pieces involved the research at the American Museum in Britain, just outside the Roman town of Bath in Somerset, England where I made many measured drawings of the Shaker pieces I subsequently made as exercises to train myself through. The examples of treen I found there told me things at that time unknown to me. I replicated different pieces through the years and fell in love with simplicity. Today, 3,500 people have received training to make the Shaker-style candle box in my hands on hand tool workshops following a curriculum I developed for manual training.

More to come – Let’s discover what lies inside these buildings

I would like to present this as a short series from my visit to this wonderful culture of craft and work and workmanship. Show you things that mattered and matter. A way of working wood that you can have as a way of working with hand tools and then you will understand why I have chosen to pass on my skills and working knowledge to you. In the coming series of articles and to further enhance what we offer as training, we will follow some of the traditions of Shaker design. Our new Online Broadcast will serve as an apprenticing medium and you will discover the art and craft of hand tool woodworking. We will look more closely inside these buildings and see the turbine that drives the mechanism of culture. We, you and I, are born to work with our hands. We want to be the best we can and strive for excellence. The best way to preserve a seed is not to store it in a dim and dark cellar but to plant it deep in the heart of people who love working , working the land and working the crafts that support those essential elements of life.

Keep following. I have more in this series starting tomorrow all being well and of course I have a whole Foundational Course about to begin and I will keep you posted on that as the two weeks unfold starting on Monday. Keep sending your questions  through the comments section. I love answering them and remember also that your question may be an answer to hundreds of other people.

3 Comments

  1. tico vogt on 28 September 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Hi Paul,

    Is it okay for someone living nearby to visit the school? Are there certain appropriate times to stop in?

  2. John Heintz on 11 August 2016 at 11:47 pm

    I was a late joiner (no pun intended) to Paul’s student body, so this is the first I read this blog. In age I am a contemporary of Paul,( but by no means of his caliber in the art) . I am saying this because I grew up in New Lebabnon and for a spell in Pittsfield . In fact, as a youngster I played in the round barn in Shaker Village. I and my friends were gently chased out by the last remaining Shaker brother or the hired hands. At that time, the village was not fully a museum.I did not appreciate the work or innovation that was shown in the building or furniture but I do now. Thanks for sharing your feelings

    • Steve Cummings on 20 August 2017 at 1:07 am

      John, I too grew up in the area of the Shaker/New Lebanon area. Chatham, New York in fact. My Dad was a local veterinarian and may have done some work for the Shakers in 1950’s. Remember the stone barn that stood out from the mountain? There also was a Shaker museum in Old Chatham, NY but it has now closed.

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