By Linda McK.Stewart
It could hardly come at a more propitious time. With the wreckage wrought by Super Storm Sandy still all too apparent, with the raw memory of treasured family heirlooms lying shattered atop heaps of sodden debris, comes the most appealing of proposals. From ShackletonThomas, one of New England’s most prestigious enterprises – where the word handmade takes on a rare profundity – comes a most welcome invitation: Between now and the end of February come spend two nights, all expenses paid, in one of four Vermont inns in order to visit the nearby galleries and workshops of ShackletonThomas, to select the handcrafted bed of your choice. Prowl the galleries, watch the potters and the woodworkers at their craft and, if you are so inclined, spend some time trying your own hand at what … who knows … might develop into an enthusiasm of your own.
It’s a tale that actually begins in 1979. That was the year that Charles Shackleford and Miranda Thomas first met in England. Both were students in art school. Each was pursuing what would turn out to be a lifelong passion. From boyhood on Charles was taken with the pleasure to be found in the handling, shaping and sculpting of wood. His studies took him back in time to the craftsmanship of long-ago cultures. His was the art of joining wood to wood, of fashioning it totally by hand into objects prized for beauty, elegance and practicality.
Miranda was no less devoted to the history and art of ceramics, their historical significance down through the ages from man’s earliest mastery of fire and clay to the present-day techniques of master potters around the world. Their art school studies completed, they went their separate ways, each deepening their knowledge in their own specialties. In time, quite by chance, their paths crossed again, this time in Vermont where reverence for all things made by hand still endures. Again by chance, their subsequent meeting coincided with the availability of an abandoned, three-story, water-powered, woolen mill, hard on the banks of the Ottauquechee River in Bridgewater, Vt. The rest of the story almost writes itself, they met – or re-met – fell in love, married, renovated the mill, set up their domestic household in a hillside farmhouse and combined their life’s work into what today is ShackletonThomas, a very specialized enterprise dedicated to the classic traditions of handwork in both ceramics and furniture-making.
Since its inception the company has established itself as a source of authentic, handcrafted objects, fashioned by time-honored techniques that long ago disappeared under the tidal wave of mechanization.
The company’s reputation leapt from strictly New England local to international almost by accident. Acting purely on impulse, Miranda sent newly elected President Clinton a small bowl from her studio, a modest token of congratulations. But in the welter of gifts by which any new president is showered, Miranda’s offering caught the eye of staff members responsible for selecting gifts presented to visiting dignitaries on behalf of the nation. As is always the case for such official gift giving, whatever is selected must reflect the very highest standards of American craft and workmanship. So in 1995 on the occasion of the visit by Pope John Paul II to the White House, Miranda was asked to design and create a bowl to be officially presented to His Holiness by the president.
Comparable pieces of Miranda Thomas pottery and ceramics have been used ever since on official gift-giving occasions by the United Nations, foundations, universities and corporations. They are also favored as wedding presents among perfectly private people who simply appreciate the beauty of handmade pieces.
Throughout the year ShackletonThomas opens their workrooms on specified weekends. Subscribers from all over the country come to spend time inhaling the fragrance of wood shavings, learning how to handle tools that elsewhere have long since been discarded in favor of mechanized replacements.
One summertime favorite is the Naked Table Weekend when visiting amateurs work with Vermont professionals to complete and finish a table, usually made from local timber harvested from surrounding woodlands. The weekend ends with a celebratory summer supper served at a long table in the shelter of a nearby covered bridge.
The four inns that are joining Shackleton and Thomas in the Choose-Your-Handcrafted-Bed Project are the Jackson House Inn, Woodstock Inn, Kedron Valley Inn and Woodstocker Inn. All four rest comfortably on well-founded reputations for hospitality, crackling open fires, snug bedrooms and bountiful breakfasts, guaranteed to fortify against New England winter mornings. With the offer also comes a generous voucher for two for dinner at any of a handful of excellent restaurants.
For those of you who, thanks to Storm Sandy, had to toss grandfather’s pre-Civil War four-poster or Aunt Evelina’s 18th-century beautiful sleigh bed, here is a chance to replace it with a piece of handcrafted furniture that can be handed down with pride through generations to come.
IF YOU GO: For details call ShackletonThomas at 802-672-5175.