DEGREES: B.A. in philosophy; Middlebury College Summer Language School, Japanese, 2002
JOB TITLE: Self-employed boatbuilder, writer, and researcher
FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: My freshman year I founded the Trinity Tutoring Program, which brought Trinity students to the McDonough Elementary School near campus as writing and math tutors. The program grew during my time at Trinity to have as many as 75 tutors. My understanding is the program became part of larger efforts to organize Trinity students in community outreach programs. I spent so much time at the elementary school my senior year I remember thinking, “Most of my friends are in the fourth grade.”
How did you get started in the field of building boats? I attended the Williams College Mystic Seaport Program in 1980. While there I did an internship with the museum’s boatbuilder. That gave me a taste of boatbuilding, which I later used to get a job in the small craft shop of the (then-named) National Maritime Museum in San Francisco, where I started building boats professionally.
In 2014, you won the Rare Craft Fellowship Award, given annually by the American Craft Council. What did that honor mean to you? Winning the award was an amazing validation of my work in Japan, since the prize was specifically for those working to save rare crafts. For many years I traveled to Japan, apprenticing with five boatbuilders from around the country, recording and documenting their design secrets and techniques. Raising research funding has always been a challenge, and at low points in the late 1990s, after self-funding my first two apprenticeships, I felt as though I must be the only person in the world interested in saving this remarkable craft. A grant from the Freeman Foundation provided a major boost for my work; then came magazine articles, book projects, and teaching opportunities. At the same time, I discovered a growing interest in the craft in Japan, and I began networking with others interested in traditional boatbuilding. The American Craft Council award was humbling considering the other phenomenal craftspeople nominated, and it was an extraordinary honor.
What do you enjoy most about your work? For years, the Japanese media has always had the same question for me: Why are you interested in Japanese boats? I tried answering in many different ways, but actually it was my wife who pointed out the power of the relationships I have created with each of my teachers. I am the sole apprentice for all five of my teachers; Japan’s incredible modernization offered opportunities that made young people turn away from traditional crafts. I came along and found this last generation of craftsmen yearning to share their knowledge, even with a foreigner. My teachers are/were craftsmen of incomparable skill, and it was impossible to not want to learn as much as I could from them. They learned under an apprentice system most people today would regard as brutal (typically six years, largely unpaid), and I feel honored to have been given a chance to glimpse what this kind of training was like.
How did your time at Trinity help prepare you for what you do now? Trinity was the beginning of my serious education. I am grateful for having been exposed to notions of inquiry, exploration, and intellectual challenge. It was also where I first was forced to write seriously and well.
Was there anyone at Trinity who was particularly influential? If so, who was it, and why? I’ve never forgotten Professor Drew Hyland’s phrase “responsive openness.” My life and career have taken unexpected turns, and looking back on each, I see how crucial it was to have had an open mind to even recognize a new door opening and to have the courage to turn and walk through it. Also, about 10 years ago, former Trinity President James F. English, Jr. read an article I wrote about my work in Japan. Jim was president of Trinity while I was a student, and he wrote to inform me that in 1946, as part of the occupation of Japan, he was the first American Army officer to visit Sado Island. I had done my first apprenticeship on Sado. Jim shared with me his photographs of the island, which I in turn sent to contacts in Japan. In the years since, three major exhibitions of Jim’s photos have taken place on Sado and the mainland. Jim also contributed historic photos to my latest book, Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding. He and I became close friends 25 years after we were president and student. I deeply appreciate his support and encouragement over the years it took me to finish my book.
For more on Brooks and his most recent book, please visit www.douglasbrooksboatbuilding.com