When called on his cell phone to ask about his big award from the National Endowment for the Arts, Harold A. Burnham said this:
“Could you call me back in about five minutes? I’m landing the boat at the dock.”
Figures. An 11th-generation Essex shipbuilder, Burnham built the 55-foot pinky schooner Ardelle, which he was docking at Gloucester Maritime on Wednesday morning, along with a number of other wooden ships that still sail local waters.
This week, Burnham was announced as one of nine recipients of 2012 NEA National Heritage Fellowships, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. His fellow honorees include Tejano accordionist Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez and dobro player Mike Auldridge.
The fellowship comes with $25,000 and is intended to recognize that “these artists 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.”
Burnham said he’s “thrilled,” not just for himself but for all of those who have helped, and his customers: “Keeping boat building going here means so much to a lot of people.”
The citation notes that Burnham uses traditional methods and locally harvested wood in his boats, much as his ancestors did going back to the 1600s.
“It’s not just a family tradition; it’s much deeper than that. It’s a community tradition, because in a small town all the families are related after 400 years,” he said. “Shipbuilding in Essex is part of the whole culture of the area.”
Burnham was nominated for the honor by Maggie Holtzberg, the folk arts and heritage program manager at the Massachusetts Cultural Council. “He seems to be – it’s funny to use this word – the vessel for generations of knowledge about wooden boat building that is emblematic of an industry,” Holtzberg said this week. “That he’s in the direct line of descent and doing it on the same plot of land is remarkable.”
Burnham noted that the Ardelle is spreading that gospel through public sails and charters as well as educational trips with Gloucester Maritime: “This spring we ran just over a thousand kids over the deck — third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.”
He is only the fourth boat-builder out of the 377 recipients of the fellowship since 1982, according to the NEA.
In October there will be an awards presentation and banquet at the Library of Congress and a concert at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. At the concert, Burnham will be interviewed about his work by the emcee, Nick Spitzer, host of public radio’s “American Routes.”
As for the $25,000, Burnham said he hasn’t gotten it yet, but as he just launched the Ardelle last year, “it will be put to good use right away.”