Cultural Conduit

Cultural Conduit

Douglas Brooks Replica Ashitenma

Douglas Brooks steers a replica ashitenma, a small fishing boat from the Inland Sea region of Japan. Brooks built this boat with an apprentice over a six-week period during the 2013 Setouchi art festival in Takamatsu, Japan. Photo: Shinsuke Inoue

Douglas Brooks went to the source to learn the practice of Japanese boatbuilding.

Vermont-based boatbuilder Douglas Brooks is unequivocal about what he is: a craftsman. “I don’t consider myself an artist. I think that my creativity within the craft is about coming up with improved ways to do what I do,” he says. “That’s more than enough to keep me going.”

Brooks, 53, grew up in the Connecticut River Valley, working on the waterfront during high school. But he didn’t get the boatbuilding bug until college, during a semester-long program through Williams College at Mystic Seaport museum in Connecticut. “All of the students in that program are required to do an internship. My internship happened to be in the shipyard working with one of their senior boatbuilders. It was sort of a taste of boatbuilding.”

After college, Brooks moved to the Bay Area and taught basic writing to undergrads at UC-Berkeley. During a summer break he took a job at the Maritime National Historic Park in San Francisco, which had just opened a demonstration boat shop. “At the end of the summer I had a choice of whether to go back to my teaching job or try to do something else, and I convinced the director of the museum to make me an assistant to the boatbuilder. That really kicked off my career.” He stayed five years, eventually taking on the role of boatbuilder.

In 1990, he left his position at the museum and took a vacation to Japan. Though the trip was mostly to visit a college roommate, he sought out a couple of Japanese boatbuilders.

“It was just absolutely fascinating,” he says. In Japan, he was meeting builders “who were part of unbroken traditions that went back 100 years or more. The very first boatbuilder I met told me he was an eighth-generation boatbuilder.”

In the United States at the time, craftspeople were trying to relearn the lost art of traditional wooden boatbuilding. “And then I find myself in Japan, where the art had never been lost.” That last generation of wooden boatbuilders came of age in post-World War II Japan, practicing their craft to survive as the country rebuilt, just as wartime breakthroughs in fiberglass, aluminum, and epoxy resin quickened the decline of wooden boats in the United States.

Brooks’ initial trip was a transformative experience, and he knew he had to document all he could glean from these master builders, many in their 80s and 90s and with no one to carry on their work. “The whole craft was shrouded in secrecy. Most of these men never wrote anything down,” he says. But the boatbuilders quickly warmed to Brooks. “They realized how much was going to be lost,” he says. “They all understood exactly what I was trying to do.”

Brooks returned to Japan in 1992 and ’94 to interview boatbuilder Koichi Fujii of Sado Island, who was the last maker of the barrel-like fishing vessels called taraibune, or tub boats, a form indigenous to the island. “There was no way I was going to really document this by sitting there with a tape recorder and an interpreter and just talking to Mr. Fujii. He didn’t really even have a language for talking about what he did. I realized the only way I was going to successfully document that was to become an apprentice,” Brooks says. Fortunately, Fujii had come to the same conclusion, and in 1996, Brooks returned as an apprentice.

Today, after five more apprenticeships in Japan, Brooks is finishing up a book about Japanese boatbuilding to be published in the next year, with a grant from the United States-Japan Foundation. He is also the recipient of the 2014 Rare Craft Fellowship Award, presented by the American Craft Council in association with The Balvenie, a maker of single malt scotch; the honor includes a $10,000 award and a two-week residency with The Balvenie distillery in Scotland.

Though he appreciates the accolade, he’s focused on sharing the knowledge of his teachers. “Their lives were ones of incredible struggle. That’s a really interesting contrast to the boatbuilding traditions of America, where it’s this kind of fluffy, happy revival. For my teachers in Japan, it wasn’t a revival; it was survival. They don’t attach any grandiose notions to what they do. They cranked out fishing boats to put food on their plate. I am so grateful to have been exposed to that kind of workaday, practical craftsmanship.”

Andrew Zoellner is American Craft’s assistant editor.