GARY BURSEY – SHAKER FURNITURE MAKER

Special to the Montreal Gazette by Robert J. Galbraith November 2010

“Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free,
“Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…”

handmade-shaker-furniture-quebec12Stanbridge East, Quebec—The above excerpt is from an old Shaker song that describes the philosophy of Shaker life as much as it does their furniture, known worldwide for its simplicity, craftsmanship and functionality. And while there are only three surviving Shaker practitioners remaining who strictly practice their faith and live in the one last active community, their style of furniture making is being carried on by dedicated artisans set on preserving the woodworking traditions as the last of the Shakers die off, become but footnotes in the history of North America.

Resident Gary Bursey is one of these artisans, who 40 years ago found his niche as a Shaker furniture maker. “They were originally called Quakers, but during prayer they shook so violently that they became known as the Shaking Quakers. Then they dropped the Quaker part of their name,” explained the 57-year-old father of two teenage sons and a daughter.

handmade-shaker-furniture-quebec6Bursey first began building furniture in 1977-78, when he took a course in ‘Ebinistre Artisan’ at Massey Vanier High School in Cowansville. “That was the base for my furniture making. The first thing I built was a dining room set. It was a learning experience.”

He explained that the hallmark values of Quaker design are, “their clean, straight lines and simplicity. Not all curvy and elaborately decorated. Their real purpose was function. They used the tables and chairs to eat, then went back to work. These were not elaborate furnishings, but served a basic purpose.”

Bursey hand crafts Shaker-style dressers, chairs, trestle tables, accounting desks and more recently, entertainment centres (which resemble an armoire) and clocks at Meubles “Shaker” Furniture, just west of Frelighsburg. But whatever he builds, he builds it in the Shaker style.

His workshop smells like fresh truffles and cedar, from the mingling of wood fragrances that the large variety of woods stored therein. The walls are hung with every wood working tool imaginable.

Taking a pause from sanding a Shaker-style arm chair, he explained, “You’re having a handmade piece of furniture made from solid wood. I don’t use plywood or any type of chipboard. I refuse to do jobs using cheap stuff or corner cutting.” Further, the furniture maker stated, “I can’t stand people who baby their furniture or wrap it in heavy plastic to keep it from wear. This furniture is built to be used and not coddled. My wood of choice is Canadian black cherry, which is harvested locally, but I always have my eyes open for different woods,” he explained. Cherry is strong but lighter than most hardwoods and has an attractive mahogany-like hue.

handmade-shaker-furniture-quebec7“I use all cherry outside, including the backboards. The interior is poplar. It is a lighter-toned wood and makes the inside of the drawers more visual and you can see the contents of the drawers easier.” After the felled wood is cut into its required lengths, it has to be air or kiln dried to get the moisture content to around 7%. “If someone wants to put a piece in front of a heater, you don’t want it warping or cracking from shrinkage.”

He uses pegged mortise and tenon joints for increased strength and durability, joined by walnut pegs. The pegs give a certain visual feature and richness but they also allow for the shrinking and swelling of the wood as humidity changes, depending on the season.

The Shakers are a religious sect who came to America from England in 1774 after facing religious persecution by the Church of England. In their heyday, in the 1840’s, the pious Shakers had 18 communities, from Maine to Kentucky, with 6,000 worshipers.

Their religious philosophy was based on social equality and celibacy. Because they rejected sexual relations, they were involved in the running of orphanages, where they recruited most of their new members. But their numbers started to decline sharply after the government restricted their involvement in orphanages in the late 18-hundreds. It was the beginning of the end for the pious, celibate Shakers, who lived by their beliefs and were becoming extinct by their beliefs.

As he chiselled away on an arm for a new chair in his workshop, Bursey stated that, “when you start a piece of furniture you have to visualize it finished.” He pointed to a beautiful medium-sized dresser then commented. “This is a good women’s dresser, for delicate things, whereas a man will just dump everything in without any concern for organization,” he said.

handmade-shaker-furniture-quebec4“Someone will come in and ask me to build a dresser and I will ask what you want to put into it and where. Spacing is important. The Shaker style was about what you’re going to put into it. Everything had a place. And while they were a well-organized people, their main business was seed production. But they were also very reliant on furniture making for bringing income to the communities,” expressed Bursey.

For the Shakers, the kitchen or dining room table wasn’t the place to hang around and shoot the breeze for hours. “They would eat then hang the chairs on the wall so they didn’t get dust on the seats and to keep the floor open from clutter.”

While there were no Shaker communities in Quebec, their influence can be found scattered about the Eastern Townships in the form of the distinctive round barn. These barns were conceived by the Shakers because they required less construction material and allowed for more livestock and feed to be stored in them. There was also the beleif that a round barn left no corner for the devil to hide behind.

“There were once as many as 30 of these barns just north of the Vermont border here in Southern Quebec, now there are only six left,” commented Heather Darch, Historian and Curator of the Missisquoi Museum, located in historic Stanbridge East. “The Shaker community was a small community and it’s surprising that this technology showed up here; but we are just above the New England border, where it spilled over into Southern Quebec,” she explained. “New England was a great influence here on our architectural style. You can see examples of it wherever you go in this region.”

The Eastern Townships area of Quebec is a stimulating home to a great number of the province’s artists and artisans, explained Darch. “I don’t know if the closeness to nature, the open landscapes and being sort of nestled in this part of the province that inspires so many artisans to this region, so close to the border. The landscape is so inspiring. There’s a freedom about that. It grounds the community and hooks it into the past.”

handmade-shaker-furniture-quebec10Bursey also builds Mission chairs which are more comfortable and designed for sitting around and lounging in, (as compared to the simpler, utilitarian Shaker chairs). This is a style of chair that accentuates simple horizontal and vertical lines and flat panels that bring out the grain of the wood. These are not meant to be hung on a wall as the Shaker styles are.

“Being a furniture maker has given me a better quality of life. I don’t have the stress of those who fight traffic and are stressed out. For me, I really like what I do. It’s not all about money; it’s whether I like the piece before it leaves the shop and time is not as much an influence as it is having a great result,” stressed Bursey, a native Newfoundlander who was born on Bell Island, near St John’s.

His family moved to Quebec in the 1960’s, after the iron ore mine, in which his father worked as a carpenter, closed down. It was time to leave ‘The Rock’ for greener pastures.

Gary Bursey visits his sea-bound island every year, which in his heart and mind, he never really left. “Perhaps in a few years I will most likely be returning there to live.”

But wherever Gary goes, his work will invigorate and inspire, as does the sign hanging above the organized confusion of cherry and walnut boards lining his workshop; ‘Never confuse education with intelligence.’

**Gary has since moved back to The Rock and lives in the town of Clarenville. I have no other contact information for him.