Past, Present, Future

Hancock Shaker Village Contemplates All Three

“A dovetail joint,” explains Steve Grasselli, artist in residence at Hancock Shaker Village, “that is something, which really cannot be improved upon. In truth, there are not so many different ways to make things well.” He counsels, “If you want to learn how to make something lasting, take a very old piece of furniture that’s still in working condition apart.” This attention to lessons in things that endure is one place where what Grasselli does in the here and now—build fine furniture—itself dovetails so nicely with the Village’s mission.

Besides having visitors to the Village view him in action, Grasselli teaches workshops there, and his products are available in the shop. He accepts commissions to make reproductions. In order to make “a good item for a fair price” requires some trade-offs from the entirely handmade originals. Grasselli offers, “When I make a one-drawer Shaker style blanket chest, I use a machine to make the dovetail joint. I don’t think this is cheating and it takes about 1/10th the time and thus saves so greatly on the labor costs compared to making that joint by hand.” Certain attributes can’t be ignored, says Grasselli, like solid wood, strong joinery and a pleasing finish—and of course, reliable, assured craftsmanship. He adds, “People like furniture that is nice to the touch.”

Ellen Spear, Hancock Shaker Village’s Executive Director, has thought a great deal about how the historic site in Massachusetts’ bucolic Berkshire Hills can serve as a meaningful resource in these times. Of the Shakers, Spear says, “They embraced a long view of what you make and what you have. They did not simply throw things away, but found new purpose in another guise.” Spear continues, “I think people are again embracing this 100-year view.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Hancock Shaker Village. Spear reflects upon some good fortune and forward thinking back in 1960. “That was a time,” she says, “when urban renewal was all the rage. So many things were just being knocked down to make room for the new. It is amazing that this effort at preservation was begun then.”

Preserving the site is only the beginning. With Shaker values firmly in mind (and heart), the institution has looked hard at its core strengths and mission. Says Spear, “Among other things, the Shakers focused upon how to be stewards to the land. They were ordinary people trying to live principled lives. The challenges we face today call for us to look to many of the same concerns they addressed, such as sustainability, simplicity, innovation, and community.” If one word summed up how Hancock Shaker Village is endeavoring to take this on, it’d be education. From being able to watch and ask questions of interpreters demonstrating woodworking, fiber arts, farming and gardening, to day or weekend-long workshops, to the launch of a graduate program in historic preservation in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, sharing both hands-on skills and bigger-picture ideas is tantamount.

With what Spear describes as a “wealth of physical and intellectual resources to utilize,” seeing the Village as classroom is a natural extension for the institution. The thirty weekend-long Master’s in Historic Preservation program launches in this fall. Next year the program expands to include additional majors, certificate programs and trainings in specific trades under the title the Institute for Historic Preservation Studies. Spear explains, “This is such a unique setting and we can offer our students opportunities to practice historic preservation here, where the real world challenges of historic preservation aren’t theoretical.”

Spear notes that there’s a great deal of interest in the sustainable these days. Instruction in practical skills that very recently seemed nearly lost drives interest at the Village, including organic gardening techniques and learning how to care for backyard chickens. “Recently, we had forty-five people attend a workshop about raising backyard chickens,” Spear says. “There’s interest in reclaiming basic skills alongside likeminded people. That group continues to support one another in sharing information about their adventures in keeping chickens.”

That theme of lost arts surfaces often around the Village. Fiber artist and arts educator, Kathy Vincent, says, “About 80 years ago, Mary Meigs Atwater believed weaving was a dying art and so she went to Appalachia to learn from weavers there, and then she brought that knowledge all over, teaching weaving. She is considered the impetus for the revival of weaving all those years ago.” That is, before the next revival of weaving and other useful arts in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. At that time, Vincent was at the Philadelphia College of Art (she graduated in 1971) and says weaving and ceramics were integral to the hippie credo of returning “to our roots.” She adds, “There was also real pride in producing quality products.”

Funny then how in a very different time—less hippie love’s in the air these days—Vincent, head of interpreters at Hancock Shaker Village and a weaver and educator, notes how that sense of appreciating roots remains vital. She says, “Kids have no idea how clothes are made. You go to the store and get something.” What’s more, Vincent points out that something like weaving is “so tactile” and kids—adults, too—love that aspect of learning to weave or even observing weaving up close enough to touch.

A longtime arts educator, Vincent says that when she taught in the schools, she introduced fiber projects at the end of the school year and kids always loved working with fiber, both for the products produced and the pleasure of the tactile.

Steve Grasselli echoes Vincent’s belief that pleasure—of feeling able to make things as well as of the tactile—is a critical component in what draws people away—at least briefly—from the mass-produced, cookie-cutter ways of today’s consumerism. Of his weekend box making workshops, Grasselli says that people often experience the euphoria discovered by being able to make something. The confidence this inspires translates into other creative endeavors. He notes, “By Sunday afternoon, having made a box, many people believe they could make anything.” He adds, “I got an email years after one woman took my box making workshop and she wrote that she never made another box. What she did, though, was learn stained glass. She was so excited by stained glass that she set up a studio in her house.”

Grasselli delights in seeing people become enamored with making things. He and Vincent discuss the distinction between learning to make things and being an artisan in different ways. He counsels people so besotted by their newfound passion to follow it, and to be patient. He explains: “You have to put a lot of time into your avocation, and be willing to get lost in it. If you can’t get lost in it—self-employment, particularly when you’re making things does not occur on a 9-5 clock—then you might reconsider. It takes that kind of time to get good at making things and that kind of time to keep producing products.” He adds, “I heard this from a master violin maker: ‘Don’t sell your first twenty-five violins.’ You really have to devote time to the process.” Vincent explains of weaving, “Learning to weave is easy; setting up a loom is very exacting, very difficult.” Both would agree those examples demonstrate another of the lessons Hancock Shaker Village has to offer, that reverence for doing things well requires skill and effort—and that mastery is a worthwhile pursuit.

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