A year after drawing claps and gasps of awe at the launching of his 2011 wooden schooner, the Ardelle, Essex's Harold Burnham has sailed into a new hall of honors.
The National Endowment for the Arts has honored Burnham as a 2012 recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship, making him one of just nine fellows to be so honored this year nationwide, according to an NEA announcement.
Burnham said Wednesday the award, which carries a $25,000 prize, honors not only him, but also the 11 generations of shipbuilders in his family.
"It's great for me, but the thing you really feel grateful for are all the people that helped you along the way with an unlikely career," Burnham said, sitting on a bench in the cabin of the docked Ardelle. He sported a salmon-pink Pinky Ardelle cap pulled over white hair, a deep-rooted tan revealing hours spent on the water, and had his feet in brown, leather boat shoes planted on the floor of the wooden ship, right where they belong.
The endowment chooses recipients who throughout their careers have "honored the history of their art forms while also incorporating their own creativity and innovation to carry the art forms into the 21st century," according to the Tuesday statement.
Burnham designs and builds boats, using hand tools and building with wood harvested from local companies, like Dan Mayer & Mayer Tree Service, Inc. of Essex. Burnham runs an Essex shipyard and is at least the 28th person in at least 11 generations of his extended family to do so.
Burnham said he feels lucky to be one of the people connecting the shipbuilding techniques of the past to the current world. Burnham said only one of his employees had worked on building wooden ships before Burnham hired him.
"Because of our work, there's a whole generation of people who have worked on these boats now," Burnham said.
Maritime Gloucester Executive Director Tom Balf said he is thrilled for Burnham, proud to host two of Burnham's boats at Maritime Gloucester, and glad to be working with Burnham teaching maritime sciences.
"He has an extraordinary sense of understanding the big picture and at the same time, he's incredibly insightful and attentive to details, whether it's working with a Gloucester fourth grader or building a boat," Balf said. "He knows just what everyone and everything needs."
As a child, Burnham spent time wandering in and out of shipmakers shops and watching them craft trees into boards and later into ships. Burnham spent his afternoons in shipbuilder Brad Story's shop, intently watching Story and his own father create vessels. And, in boats made by Burnham's father, the family took sailing trips up and down the coast.
"Growing up it was less business-like. I definitely enjoyed my father's hobby," Burnham said.
Burnham added, though, that he received a degree in fishing and water traffic from Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and he learned the shipmaking trade from those hours spent in shops, watching builders do their work and learning how ships sail.
But as much as he loved the wooden ships, Burnham said, he never thought he would make a career out of building them, especially during a time when fiberglass boats were taking over the industry.
"I thought maybe someday I might build one schooner, " he said, "but to have built six now is — Wow!"
Two of Burnham's ships, the Thomas E. Lannon and the Ardelle, function as tour schooners showcasing the harbor to hundreds of visitors each day and teaching the passengers about the maritime sciences.
Lannon skipper Tom Ellis has also long catered to school and other youth groups, and this spring, Burnham and the Ardelle took on more than 1,000 Gloucester school kids through a program arranged between Maritime Gloucester and Burnham.
Burnham said that's one of the ways he keeps the shipbuilding trade alive, by making his ships viable.
"I don't build boats with wood because it's the old way to do it. I build them with wood because it's an effective way to build boats," Burnham said.
Each NEA fellow will receive $25,000 from the endowment — an amount that will doubtless be useful to a man who's sending his son to college next year and just finished building himself a 47-person schooner.
But, the motivation for Burnham's work seems to stem purely from passion.
"All you've got to do is start leaving trees around, and I'll start building boats," Burnham said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.