Earth, Fire, & Water

Joy and satisfaction through creating

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

shelb_craft_sageIn 2010, The Shelburne Craft School asked Sage Tucker-Ketcham to paint a cow for a fundraiser. By December, she was offered the job of executive director.

Sage Tucker-Ketcham’s heritage is as “Green Mountains” as it gets: 10 generations on one side, 14 on the other. Her mother’s family has roots in Cabot, Essex Center, and St. Johnsbury. Her father’s side hails from the Wallingford area, Essex Junction, and Huntington, which got its name from his ancestors in the Hunt family. Her father’s side is keeper of the Ketcham Book, a handwritten account of every generation, begun in the 1700s and handed down to the eldest male.

“It’s really neat,” she says. “I’m in there, hand-written in. They’re very protective of it.”

Tucker-Ketcham is, herself, protecting another kind of heritage. For the last five years, she has been executive director and advanced painting instructor of The Shelburne Craft School, founded in 1938 by Rev. J. Lynwood Smith as a project in the Trinity Episcopal Church rectory. In 1945, it was incorporated as a nonprofit to be a space for artists and artisans.

The Craft School operates from a historic property at 64 Harbor Road. Its five venerable buildings include one-time housing for railroad workers, says Tucker-Ketcham. “The site consists of three properties gifted at three different times.” The red building in front, originally a harness shop, was bought from Henry W. Tracy for $1; the parking lot was gifted by Electra Havemeyer Webb after she moved the blacksmith shop to the Shelburne Museum. Then Tracy sold to the school the buildings in the back.

Throughout its history, the Webb family has supported and encouraged the Craft School and its programs. Aileen Osborn Webb, a potter and advocate of the American Craft Movement, and founder of the School for American Crafts People at the Rochester Institute of Technology, was of particular importance in turning the school into a space for artists and artisans to work, learn, and educate community members.

Marshall Webb, woodlands manager and special projects coordinator of Shelburne Farms and a member of the Craft School board, is Aileen Webb’s grandson. “Her whole life was dedicated to crafts and better international communication through crafts,” he says.

“Her ultimate goal was a world at peace, and she thought inner peace was a good beginning. She believed that everyone, no matter what their background, could find meaning in using their hands and getting joy and satisfaction out of creating something.”

In 2004, the Craft School, by then a treasured Shelburne institution, expanded and rebranded to become the Shelburne Art Center, and moved to a building on the Shelburne Village Green, which allowed space for a larger gallery and special events, plus representation of nationally respected artists and craftsmen. Unfortunately, five years later, the economic downturn necessitated a downsizing and return, in 2009, to the Harbor Road property. Tucker-Ketcham was hired in 2010; in 2011 the school’s name returned to its original: The Shelburne Craft School; and in 2015, it was designated a Vermont Craft Center for excellence in craft education.

Tucker-Ketcham’s background seems uniquely formed to guide her into the job. “I was born in Randolph, and my mother raised me as a single parent,” she says. Her mother’s grandfather was caretaker at the Bostwick estate in Shelburne. Dunbar Bostwick was the son-in-law of J. Watson and Electra Webb.

“My mother and I traveled around the state a lot,” says Tucker-Ketcham. “We left Vermont for Toronto when I was 10, then we moved to London, England, and then to Reston, Virginia, where I went to high school.

“When I graduated, my mom said to me, ‘You can go anywhere in the world you want,’ and I said, ‘I just want to go back to Vermont.’” She returned to attend Goddard College. (Her mother came back a couple of years later and settled in Charlotte, where she still lives.)

Tucker-Ketcham left Goddard after a semester and headed for Burlington College. “I studied, dropped out, got a job at [design firm] JDK — kept dropping out and going back, doing part-time classes when I was working.”

At JDK she was quickly promoted to traffic manager. “I was the youngest at that time to work upstairs as an employee and not an intern.” After a year, she was “very inspired” to return to art school.

It was 2000, and Tucker-Ketcham was 21, when she left for the Maine College of Art in Portland to study painting and teach art classes to children in a community center in Cape Elizabeth.

After graduation in 2003, she returned to Vermont, landing a job as Greater Burlington YMCA’s site director at Thatcher Brook Elementary School in Waterbury. She was also teaching freelance for the Y at Burlington City Kids and Burlington City Arts.

At age 25, with a business loan from Chittenden Bank, Tucker-Ketcham opened an art gallery and education space, Studio STK, on North Street. She was concurrently teaching at Burlington College as an adjunct and doing graduate study through a low-residency graduate program at the Fine Arts Work Center of the Massachusetts College of Art in Provincetown-Cape Cod.

In 2007, she married David Parsons, a native of Shelburne whom she had met at 19 while traveling in Europe. “We became really good friends,” she says, “and found ourselves at one point, both being single and decided to date, and then married.” They live in South Burlington with their son, Kingsley Parsons, age 2 1/2.

Wanting to focus on graduate school, Tucker-Ketcham closed her business and took a job at Close to Home, her family’s business, then in Williston. Three years later, encouraged by Parsons to take time off to focus on her painting, she left Close to Home to work in her studio full time. “I’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of art sales through the years,” she says.

Enter The Shelburne Craft School in 2010, then still known as the Shelburne Art Center. “I got a phone call from Holly Boardman, the director of the Shelburne Art Center at the time, asking me to paint a cow for a fundraiser we were doing. She let me use the front space.”

The Craft School was trying to get things going again, says Tucker-Ketcham. “As I’m painting the cow — I’m semi-nosey — I heard that they were hiring an office manager. I piped up and said, ‘I’m not working right now and would like to get involved. I have no idea what this is; it’s a great place. I have lots of experience, been teaching art a number of years, and would like to help.”

She was hired on the spot. Three weeks into her new job, when she phoned Boardman to report she was updating the website, Boardman said, “Congratulations. You’re the new director. You’re going to get a call tonight. I just resigned.”

Sure enough, Stephen Selin, president of the board, asked her to come in the next day and talk about her taking the job.

“At the time, the Craft School was in a pretty tricky space, financially and physically,” says Tucker-Ketcham. “I was up for the challenge. I started the next day, December 2.”

The school was about $52,000 in the hole, she says. “I looked at the numbers, looked at the books, looked at all the filing cabinets. The first six months, I wanted to sit on the ground and read all the notes — there’s so much good here, it needed to be found again and simplified.”

In 2013, the campus was completely converted to natural gas. A zero-interest loan from Green Mountain Credit Union, in partnership with Vermont Gas, helped finance it. It was paid off just this year.

Half of the $52,000 deficit represented personal loans given to the center by community members, which were completely forgiven, she says.

The difficult part was having to let go of staff, leaving Tucker-Ketcham and one part-time helper for a couple of years. She restructured the resident artist program, which had largely required managing the studios, then hired managers to oversee the studios as employees.

“We’re now on social media. We made cuts [in the marketing budget] and invested in the people who work here, and in the last couple of years, we’re at six part-time employees and myself and have about 20 instructors — subcontractors.”

Tucker-Ketcham brought the Craft School into the 21st century, says Webb, particularly by improving the Web presence and the ability to register and donate money online.

In 2015, the red building at the road was repainted and reinsulated. “Financially we’re doing great. We’re not swimming in money — we need an endowment and some bigger cushion, but our operating and day-to-day expenses are covered.”

Of importance is that an ongoing relationship has been forged with Shelburne Community School over the years, as a resource for arts education the school doesn’t have. Each school year, 120 students participate in a project the school calls arts and citizenship.

“Our primary piece is their work with our eighth-graders,” says Allan Miller, the middle school co-principal. “Students go over to the Craft School to explore creative media we don’t have here — the facility to work with the woodshop; metalworking creating jewelry or little soldered pieces of metal; stained glass; pottery on the wheel; and sometimes even use their artists for big-type canvas painting. It’s a choice program. We expect every eighth-grader to go through it, but they go over there independently. It’s a chance to be a young adult and say, ‘What can I do? What can I create?’”

“I look at the Craft School two ways,” says Tucker-Ketcham, whose eye remains on tying the past to the future. “We offer our own programming, but we own everything you need for these disciplines, and we take good care of it. When we’re not using the studios or equipment for ourselves, we want to use this as a resource.” •