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Gallery Profile: The Wharfin Gallery

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When the barn door of the Vermont Woodworking School opens, the smell of sawdust sweeps like a wave. Inside is a neat mix of machines, books and dust. Carina Driscoll, the school’s cofounder and executive director, is as no-nonsense as she is knowledgeable, explaining the founding of the school, its recent relocation from Colchester to Fairfax and the woodworking programs, which offer total-immersion instruction toward associate’s and master’s degrees in fine-furniture making.

Driscoll points out the beginning woodworking projects — cherry end tables with elegant proportions and exacting joints. She describes the renovation of the barn that houses the school and Wharfin Gallery, with its salvaged beams, radiant floors and efficient, eco-friendly furnaces. Nearly a year into its new location, the school fairly glows with the evidence of hard work and passion.

The Wharfin Gallery is located on the second floor of the school and named for the “wharfin,” or covered entrance to the building, which frames a breathtaking view of cornfields sweeping back to the mountains. The regional word wharfin “is not in the dictionary,” Driscoll notes. “We had to do a lot of research to make sure we were spelling it right.”

Master craftsman Bob Fletcher, the school’s cofounder and director of education, suggests the structure “is from a different time, a different world.”

Inside the 1000-square-foot gallery, honeyed pine floors and rustic beams exude polished ruggedness. Masterful wooden creations populate the space, interspersed with interesting blown- and stained-glass works, sculptural turned bowls and paper lamps. The gallery is built in a U shape, with two larger rooms connected by a smaller one. Fluorescent lights hum overhead, while track lighting is focused on the artwork.

“The gallery was originally intended as a place for woodworking students from the school to show their work,” explains curator Sean Knight. “But then we thought, Why not invite local artists, too?” He points to an oil painting by the current featured artist, Peter Miller — a landscape of purple-blue trees that cast cobalt shadows on snowbanks.

Knight talks excitedly of student projects and ambitions before explaining his own. Originally a student who came to benefit from Fletcher’s expertise in decorative painted wood, Knight now builds and paints blanket chests resembling those crafted in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. He also does restoration work.

Knight is particularly keen to discuss a project he and the woodworking school are undertaking in conjunction with the Shelburne Museum: the reproduction of a William and Mary folk-art-painted chest like those found in 18th-century Connecticut. Knight plans to create two reproductions with the students — one that is “aged” and one that replicates the chest’s original coloration. “These pieces were really bright and gaudy when they were new,” Knight remarks.

The works in the gallery are for sale, and the venue serves to further the students’ education in the business of art. Economics are not far from the minds of these crafters, Driscoll says. “We’re different than other woodworking schools; we don’t shy away from how you make a living at this.”

The students reportedly progress rapidly in skill. Driscoll points to the work of alumnus Kevin Coughlin, who came from Florida to attend the school. Coughlin completed several projects at VWS before starting his own enterprise in Connecticut with another grad. “He learned a lot in the process,” Knight offers.

Adds Fletcher, “I let them fall a bit — not crash and burn, but learn on their own.”

Fletcher’s teaching style may account for the remarkable diversity of work on view in the Wharfin Gallery. A traditional lowboy with elegant turned spindles and claw feet stands near a sculptural, burled-walnut table with whimsical purple heart and mahogany ties. Fletcher points proudly to a handsome Asian-inspired bookcase and cabinet one student made for his sister.

Knight and the school’s cofounders seem to enjoy the stories of how each student arrived at his or her work nearly as much as the work itself. And the wood itself is steeped in mystery. Fletcher points to an elegant Mission-style coffee table with a rhythmic silvery pattern through the wood. “This table’s made from blistered maple,” he says. “You can’t tell this [pattern] is in the tree from the outside. Sometimes you just luck out and find it.”

The same might be said of the Vermont Woodworking School, where the immersion program’s enrollment has swelled to its 12-person capacity — there are plans to double that in the spring. With student housing scheduled for the original silos and space to spare on the top floor of the barn, the school is poised for that growth, Driscoll believes. “We’re on par with other big woodworking schools across the country,” she says. The Wharfin Gallery offers evidence by the board foot.

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