Catskill Craftsmen:Talent plus individualism the perfect fit
Text | Photographs: Cass Collins
People come to the Upper Delaware River valley for lots of reasons: the natural beauty of the landscape, the mountain air and cool summer nights, fishing, swimming and boating in the clear waters of its lakes and rivers. But the people who stay here to live and work and create seem to share a stubborn individualist trait.
Take Peter Galbert, chairmaker (20 Old Taylor Road, Jeffersonville, NY 12748, 845/ 482-9318, www.petergalbertchairmaker.com/ , email@example.com). Galbert, who sells his work in fine craft venues including Matthew Solomon on Main Street in Narrowsburg, NY, has the intelligence, education and talent of 10 men. You get the feeling he’d be good at anything he set his mind to do, and that he could succeed in a world far larger than the rarified world of furniture-making. Besides chair-making, Galbert designed and built the classic farmhouse he shares with his wife, Sue Scott. Galbert raises goats and chickens, makes his own maple syrup, blogs on the internet, lectures on wood-working, teaches workshops and is writing and publishing a book with another craftsman, Curtis Buchanan, on—what else?—chair-making.
“So what is it about chairs?” I asked him on a visit to his handmade (and community-raised) workshop barn just a log’s length from the steps of his cozy Catskills home.
Galbert sees each chair as a “decathlon” and adds, “It’s the variety I enjoy.” He doesn’t spend too much time on any one aspect of the process, but Galbert chairs are works of art. After mastering the classic Windsor design form, he is branching out and designing his own blend of classic form and modern style. A grandly proportioned dark walnut rocker shares his living room with a lighter white oak version.
Working with green wood, not dried lumber, Galbert splits whole logs—often ones that he has harvested himself—in order to work with the grain of the wood instead of against it. He can make up to 15 chairs from a single log. “The strength of a tree,” he says, “depends on its flexibility—its ability to bend in the wind,” and Galbert’s chairs are eminently flexible as well as strong. He demonstrates this by taking a recently carved spindle and bending it in a half-circle. Most furniture that is made from board lumber would not survive such treatment. But Galbert makes objects from trees, not boards. After splitting a log into blanks with an axe, he uses a draw-knife to create spindles, then a spokeshave to finish them. Galbert doesn’t use sandpaper. Only long curling tendrils of wood-shavings litter the floor—soon to be repurposed as bedding for his chickens, then mulched into the garden.
It’s not that he consciously avoids power tools—although he finds them noisy—or has a philosophical aversion to making work easier. “I’m not a Luddite,” he says. “I just use the appropriate tool for the job.” Lacking appropriate technology inspired Galbert to invent a new tool—the Galbert Caliper, an ingeniously simple device that enables him to get a constant accurate reading of the diameter of a work-piece as it is cut, without resetting multiple tools, perfect for the elegant turnings on a Windsor chair leg. The caliper is so effective that he has had to go into a second manufacturing run, adding “industrialist” to his expanding list of job titles.
I can’t help wondering what this Renaissance man started out to be before he became a chair-maker. Did he ever have a regular job? It turns out he did. After getting his degree in photography—and studying painting, drawing and sculpture—at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Galbert moved to New York City. There, he made cabinetry and designed museum displays out of a storefront in the East Village. Soon, though, as the East Village was gentrified, he found himself priced out of his workshop space. He and Sue looked around for a place with “more space and more trees.” Jeffersonville fit their idea of livable in the early part of 2001—just before New York City became unlivable for a time after September 11 of that year.
“Life is a series of imperfect things,” says Galbert philosophically. “The point is to find our own humanity in what we’re making.” With time and space, trees and talent, Galbert marries his humanity with trees and makes chairs. What could be more perfect than that?
Mike Barber’s mother is not surprised that her son’s livelihood involves something creative. “Ask my mother,” he says. “I was always taking extra art classes and drawing.” Barber grew up in Willsboro, NY near the southern shores of Lake Champlain. When he married Colleen O’Toole, whose father owned O’Toole’s Harley-Davidson in Wurtsboro, his father-in-law was happy to show Barber the ins and outs of entrepreneurship.
On a trip to the Adirondacks with Colleen, Barber was fascinated by the Adirondack-style furniture they saw and wondered why there was nothing comparable being offered in their Catskills town. He knew he wanted to open his own business with the expertise gained from his father-in-law, and now he knew what he wanted it to be. Thus, The Rustic Cottage (4938 State Route 52, Jeffersonville, NY, 12748, 845/482-4123, www.therusticcottage.com/, firstname.lastname@example.org ) was born.
Barber hired expert furniture men and watched them work. He credits Mike Scardino and Ed Hanslmaier, both local craftsmen whose skills Barber enlists to this day, with providing his education. He loves the idea of re-using existing things and “bringing them back to life.” His favorite part of the work involves designing. A favorite piece is a new console table whose legs are repurposed antique oars. That’s what “sets me apart,” Barber says, and makes his work interesting and fun. He has learned the craft of “barking and twigging” and is careful to harvest bark responsibly so that the tree is not damaged. His pieces often combine original painted scenes of wildlife. For those he employs the skills of Jessica Farrell, the wife of noted rustic furniture maker Jerry Farrell who lives near Oneonta, NY.
Artists from all over the country are represented in The Rustic Cottage. “Because of the economy,” Barber says, craftspeople are always looking for a showcase for their work and the store is a favorite for many of the best rustic-style furniture makers. “We’re doing very well,” he adds.
Besides selling his work from his shop in Jeffersonville, Barber travels to furniture shows and he does a lot of custom work for houses in The Chapin Estate in Bethel, NY and the Beechwoods near Jeffersonville. He loves going back to houses he hasn’t been to in a while and seeing his early work. He’s not just building furniture, he’s building a legacy. Barber’s young daughter, Chloe Rose, is six years old. “If you ask her what she wants to do when she grows up,” Barber crows, “she wants to make furniture like Daddy.”
Originally from the Czech Republic, Jaime Stankevicius grew up in Brazil and is a trained lyric tenor with three degrees, one a Masters in Music. So it is only natural that he owns an eclectic home furnishings store in Jeffersonville, right? Stankevicius describes himself as “very theatrical,” but “I come from three generations of furniture makers.” So when his father heard about his son’s Catskills livelihood, he said simply, “Ah-hah!”
Bridgewater Mercantile (4917 Main Street/State Route 52, Jeffersonville, New York 12748, 845/482-4044, www.bridgewatermercantile.com/, email@example.com) is a pleasantly cluttered store featuring everything from antique dishware to candlesticks and mirrors to colorful scarves. It also showcases some fabulous homemade furniture.
Stankevicius’s main trade is custom-designed kitchens. One of his most sought-after pieces is a kitchen island made from yellow pine or cypress with a heavy bluestone top. The piece is crafted in his Pennsylvania workshop and finished with six layers of tung oil, then another six coats of Briwax, a British beeswax polish/sealer.
Another favorite of homeowners in the area is Stankevicius’s farmhouse table. Often a mix of old and new construction, the tables bring a sense of permanence and stability to any home. A European-style table has turned legs from a re-purposed antique, and a barnboard top that has been hand-rubbed to bring out its character. A classic American farm table is typically seven feet long and 40 inches wide, with tapered legs and a Shaker-inspired horizontal board at each end that is doweled in place to add stability.
Stankevicius’s interest in large tables is stimulated in part by his fondness for entertaining large groups of friends in his Livingston Manor home. (At a recent St. Patrick’s Day feast, he fed 25 for dinner on large quantities of Shepherd’s Pie and beef brisket.) However, he is happy to make tables of any size to order. His home is also a guest hotel, Bridgewater Guesthouse (www.bridgewaterguesthouse.com), a “boutique hotel with a European sensitivity” and where Jaime’s dream kitchen resides. The colors literally came to him in a dream: salmon and terra-cotta, with green lights. The home won Stankevicius and his partner, Paul Hargrove, a 2006 Sullivan County Showcase Award for best large-scale residential structure renovation.