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May 10, 2012

Vermont Gets Its First State Craft Education Center

IMG_0276The big, red, Fairfax barn that houses Vermont Woodworking School was abuzz yesterday celebrating its new designation as Vermont's first State Craft Education Center.

VWS joins the ranks of the state's other official craft centers, Frog Hollow in Burlington, Artisans Hand in Montpelier and Gallery at the Vault in Springfield.

The designation is largely symbolic; it doesn't secure the organizations any extra funding or perks (besides a flashy decal to place in the window and a listing on the state's website). But the nod lends a dose of prestige to the school, which is still relatively new.

Vermont Woodworking School — which is affiliated with Burlington College — was founded five years ago. Around that time, "I was looking for an escape," recalled director Carina Driscoll at a ceremony yesterday marking the designation. The event took place in the basement workshops of the school's converted-barn facility.

Driscoll had started dabbling in furniture making at a community woodworkers' shop in Colchester, where she met master craftsman Robert Fletcher. When the shop closed down, Driscoll, her husband, Blake Ewoldson, and Fletcher took over the lease together in hopes of starting a school in the little space behind Costco. They enrolled half a dozen students and got started. But something was missing. "We got the notion we needed a big, red barn in the country," said Driscoll.

They found it on a winding stretch of Route 104 in Fairfax: a late-1800s dairy barn. Cows hadn't lived there in 20 years, but "you couldn't tell because all the stanchions were still in place," said Driscoll.

The place still has the rural romance of a soaring Vermont barn, but it's been turned into a contemporary woodworking facility with 30 student benches, several specialized workrooms, a resource libarary and a studio for photographing finished work. The silo-turned-dormitory is so cool, it could make you consider quitting your job and enrolling in the immersion program just to live there.

Yesterday's ceremony doubled as a reception for students' final projects. A gallery was filled with turned wooden bowls, a standing-height desk on elegant curved legs, a Zen-garden coffee table, and other striking works.

Yuko Yanagidaira, a student in the 12-week immersion program and one of only two women currently enrolled at VWS, came to Fairfax from Japan with no woodworking experience — but you'd never know it from browsing the sleek bento boxes and elegant writing desk she created in her first semester. "I like to make things with my hands," she said. Yanagidaira will spend this summer honing her woodworking skills in Maine, where she has a seasonal job harvesting seaweed.

IMG_0273Rob Palmer, a young carpenter from Harpers Ferry, W.V., is two years into the BFA program. He showed me his first-semester project: a three-string cigar-box guitar in a coffin-shaped, leopard-print-lined case (pictured). The instrument was inspired by Palmer's love of the blues; the case was a response to an instructor's observation that no VWS students had yet attempted to build a coffin.

"The leopard print is a nod to my dad," said Palmer, explaining that his father drives an '88 Saab convertible with a leopard interior. (His creation won an international competition last year, as noted in Seven Days at the time.)

Palmer enrolled at VWS when carpentry jobs started to dry up during the recession. "I was going through a hell of a time and I was fed up," he recalled. He was thrilled to discover the BFA program at VWS because it meant he could brush up his skills, and also get a college degree. "I'm not a book-learning type of guy," Palmer conceded. "I would love to be an artisan and a craftsman as a career... but getting the BFA opens me up to other opportunities." 


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