Shaker box artist stacked with fans

First lady is among those in line for craft

April 29, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Keith Dickson pulled a thin slab of cherry wood from a pile wrapped tight with plastic and placed it in a long rectangular box filled with boiling water.

"Some nights I bend 50 to 100 bands of wood," he said as he removed a piece from the water, bent it around a wooden mold and secured it with copper tacks. "It's very relaxing for me."

Dickson, 54, was making Shaker boxes in his home-based studio. He started making the boxes in 1992 as a hobby, he said, but when he took them to a craft show, the boxes were a hit.

"Very quickly, the boxes became half my business," the Westminster resident said. "A lot of people like the Shaker boxes for their historic value and the fact that they can use them for anything they want."

After spending 20 years making Shaker furniture, including tables, cabinets, kitchens, and built-in libraries, Dickson added handmade wooden boxes to his repertoire 15 years ago. Since then, Dickson has been making the boxes regularly, establishing himself as a leading craftsman.

His work has been featured for the last decade in Early American Life magazine, and in 1999, on the White House Christmas Tree. His clientele includes first lady Laura Bush, businessmen and homeowners along the East Coast.

Named for members of the religious sect that created them, Shaker boxes, first made in America during the late 18th century, were used to keep items dry, Dickson said.

"Most Shakers only had one box," Dickson said. "Others used the boxes as canister sets that were stacked to save space."

Using hand-selected pieces of maple, tiger maple and cherry wood, Dickson creates about 400 boxes per year.

For starters, Dickson cuts the stacks from the same piece of wood, so the grain matches perfectly, he said.

"If the boxes are good quality, you should be able to follow the line of the copper tacks down a stack of boxes, and they should all line up," Dickson said.

The boxes cost $20 to $140 per box, and $150 to $600 for stacks of boxes.

Dickson landed his most memorable commissions after a White House representative contacted Early American Life magazine looking for artists who created traditional American crafts, he said. He learned to make the boxes from John Wilson, a renowned American boxmaker from Charlotte, Mich., during one of the artisan's classes.

When the White House representative contacted the magazine in 1999, Dickson was among the crafters invited to send pieces to the White House to hang on the Christmas tree.

Dickson sent a Shaker box with a painting of Mount Vernon by folk artist Donna Kriebel - whom Dickson met at the annual Waterford Homes Tour & Crafts Exhibit, in Waterford, Va., - on the cover. The box was selected to hang on the White House Christmas tree, he said. Subsequently he received an invitation to go to the White House to see his ornament on the tree.

"The Clintons selected my Shaker box as one of several that they put in their library," he said.

Then in 2001, Kriebel was selected to create Easter posters for the White House Egg Roll. First lady Laura Bush wanted to get something to display eggs in as a gift to family members, so she asked Kriebel for ideas, and the artist suggested Dickson's Shaker boxes.

The first lady commissioned Dickson to create five small boxes that she gave to family members. Dickson added a sixth box with a note.

"I sent her a thank you note, and told her that she had boxes for her family, but she needed one as well," Dickson said.

The first lady also ordered 40 boxes that were passed out during the 2001 World Trade Convention in Canada, as a gift from the White House.

Over the past couple of decades, Kriebel has gotten to know Dickson and thought of him immediately when the first lady was looking for a box to put the eggs in, to give to her family and friends.

"Keith makes good boxes," Kriebel, 59, of Earlysville, Va., said. "He finds nice woods; his presentation and demonstrations at the shows are very nice."

Dickson's boxes appeal to Nancy Naeser, of Herndon, Va. Naeser saw his work at the Waterford Craft Show in Virginia about a decade ago, she said. His work was precise, said Naeser, who has purchased about 25 of his creations.

"His boxes are perfectly aligned, and that is very difficult to do," Naeser, 63, said. "They are wonderful. He selects the best woods for his boxes. And he is fun to watch when he gives demos at the shows."

At demonstrations, Dickson shows how the wood is cut, drilled, soaked, bent and sanded. A couple of years after he started making the boxes, he began offering classes in his home and at the Carroll County Farm Museum, he said.

After taking a class at the Farm Museum in Westminster three years ago, Diane Michalski, 47, of Cochranville, Pa., said she was hooked. Since then, Michalski has taken about six of Dickson's classes.

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