Douglas Brooks, a professional boat builder from Vergennes, was recently honored for his work by the American Craft Council and Balvenie Whisky, which awarded him the Rare Craft Fellowship Award.
For most people, going to Japan once would be the trip of a lifetime. For Douglas Brooks, it has become commonplace.
Brooks, a professional boat builder from Vergennes, has visited Japan more than two dozen times to learn the tradition of Japanese boat building, a craft Brooks said is still shrouded in secrecy.
“There’s secrecy because of tradition,” Brooks said in a recent phone interview. “Japanese boat builders are trying to protect what they do.”
According to Brooks, the craft historically has been taught in Japan through an apprenticeship system. He said he is the sole apprentice to five elderly Japanese boat builders.
Brooks sees his mission in Japan as one of documenting and saving the traditions of Japanese boat building, before the few who know the secrets and techniques die.
“In my view this work is crucial, as Japan’s last traditional boat builders leave little or no written record of their work and most have no apprentices,” Brooks says on his website.
The first few times Brooks visited Japan, he said, he had to pay out of pocket. But eventually he received grants from the Freeman Foundation, which among other things sponsors trips to Asia and studies of Asian culture. Brooks said he plans to return to Japan in April and is also trying to raise money to research the last small traditional fishing boats in Japan.
Brooks plans to document the work of an expert in the field who will soon be retiring, so as to pass along the knowledge to others.
Closer to home, Brooks is very active in the Vermont boat building world. He does everything from making boats and furniture to teaching and writing about boat building. He is working on his third book about Japanese boat building and teaches his craft at both Middlebury High School and Middlebury College.
“I co-taught a ... class at the college where we looked at traditional boats of the Lake Champlain region and then built some,” Brooks said. “And I’ll be doing a project next fall working with high school students at Middlebury building traditional boats.”
Brooks is part of the Vermont Humanities Council’s “speakers bureau” and is involved in researching the boats and boat-building traditions of the Lake Champlain basin where he lives.
“I’m currently working with Sheldon Museum,” Brooks said. “There is a project on the table to expand research on local boats and small boats of the Lake Champlain basin, which is a subject that hasn’t really been researched very much.”
Brooks was recently honored for his work in the boat building field by the American Craft Council and Balvenie Whisky, which awarded him the Rare Craft Fellowship Award. As part of the award, Brooks has received a $10,000 endowment going toward materials and continuing his craft. In addition he was rewarded with a trip to Scotland.
“Really what they were acknowledging is that I work hard to preserve my craft,” Brooks said.
According to Brooks, the visit to Scotland will include a week spent at the Balvenie distillery and another week spent studying with a Scottish craftsman.
Brooks said he was also honored for his work in documenting Japanese boat-building traditions.
“The Rare Craft Fellowship honors those who practice a rare craft and seek to preserve the skills of their trade,” Brooks says on his website.
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