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Fish Print at 1800 House Nantucket

Only Real Men Dabble in the Decorative Arts

The NHA 1800 House Arts & Crafts program

Men in Ship Carving Class at 1800 House, Nantucket
Scrimshaw Frame at 1800 House Nantucket
1800 House crafts exhibited

On a tiny, unmarked lane called Mill Street, right off Pleasant, the fourth driveway on the left displays a small sign reading “The 1800 House.” The two story somewhat oddly angled home looks much the same as many other faithfully renovated 18th century Nantucket houses, with newly silvered shingles, freshly painted trim, and a tidy landscaping of hydrangea and foxglove.

Pull into the parking area, a double wide brick and grass design, and to the right are several white, side less tents under which are a half dozen tables. On a sunny day, students who enroll in the many craft courses offered at Nantucket Historical association The 1800 House, a historic arts and crafts center, sometimes take their projects (or their lunch) outside to work.

This uniquely housed visual arts studio, is one of the best-kept secrets on-island. Rain for a week, you say? Too breezy for the beach? Teachers and artisans from both on and off- Island give even the most antsy visitor enough to fill those occasionally grey Nantucket days, with an offering of more than forty-three beginning in June.

Stepping into the house, I expected to see a cluster of Lilly Pulitzer ladies, tittering over their tatting projects, but instead I happened on an assembly of burly guys with their sleeves rolled up, hanging around a bandsaw, making scale models of sailboat half –hulls, with instructor Mark Sutherland.

Vladimir Kagan the celebrated New York City furniture maker, was finishing his Indian model, and about to start another during this four day class, perhaps an Alerion, the other course choice, for a friend as a gift. Sawdust covered the floor and varnish and stain permeated the air, student fingertips, and shirtfronts.

“The wood is cut horizontally and glued in layers to create the boat,” Vladimir explained. “ I have used white pine for the hull and skeg, a black veneer for the water mark. The mounting board is stained cedar. It has been a joy to make.”

Mary Lacoursiere (also known as Mary Emery) an artist, Islander and NHA Program Coordinator, gave me the dollar tour of the lovely old home. The wood paneled and plaster walls are charming muraled with old Nantucket landscapes, the painted wide planks floors are stenciled in repeated patterns of black on gray-green, and the oversized brick fireplaces are sparkling clean of creosote.  Turquoise painted window trim, glass wrinkled with time, are 20 panes large. However, all of the equipment and materials for the classes are purely 21st century. Bright lights, standing magnifiers and cushioned chairs surround craft paper covered tables of wide proportion.

A patron donated the house in 1951 to the NHA, whose love of arts and crafts inspired these classes of traditional techniques taught by artisans from Nantucket, or brought to the Island from throughout the world. In 2005, the house had a major facelift.

Among the unique classes offered for the first time  his year are: Gyotaku, the art of Japanese fish printing with a Hawaiian twist, taught by Bee-Shay (catch your own, bring it to class and print it on rice paper) Painting the fish eye, explained Mary, is the essence of this art form. Quarterboard making, with instructor Jac Johnson; Sperm Whale carving, letter press printing, paper whale making and transferring press on letters and pictures onto ceramic objects. 

“The early American decorative arts were practical,” Mary says. “Floor cloths had a function at the stove, painting tin kept the flour from being used as the sugar, everyday items in shape, form, design and function became game for creating beautiful objects.”

I must admit, I am a sucker for two things Nantucket: Basketry and Sailor’s Valentines. Nat Plank teaches the exquisite art of weaving floss-sized reed into miniature baskets with ivory rims, and Elizabeth Braun creates maritime seashell collages in wooden boxes. There in an entire room on the second floor housing dozens of stacked plastic containers filled to their brims with shells of every shade and shape in the sea. I felt as if I were in beach heaven and could barely keep from opening a box or two, just to look.

Classes, which also include stitchery, taught by Edith Bouriez, Patsy Ernst and Vanessa Diserio (Erica Wilson’s daughter), scrimshaw,  folk art painting of historic scenes, and duck decoys carving, custom lampshade making, cherry wood box decorating (with pen and ink), and a plethoria of other craft disciplines, are on-going from now until the last week of October, and include one-day workshops, as well as two- to four-day course work. Each class can accommodate 8-12 students.

For more information, call 508-228-7785 or visit

Ryder S. Ziebarth, a freelance writer, was most recently published in the Metropolitan Diary section in the New York Times,  Brevity, a flash- nonfiction literary journal, N magazine and among other publications. This piece first appeared in Mahon About Town, an email newsletter sent by Gene Mahon.