The Artisans: Island craftsmen and women make our houses home

Whit Hanschka works in his studio, drilling metalwork. —Lynn Christoffers

An artisan (from French: artisan, Italian: artigiano) is a skilled craftworker who makes or creates things by hand that may be functional or strictly decorative. Five Vineyard craftsmen who rely on the handmade process shared the details of their trade with us, and their thoughts on art and craft.

Whit Hanschka, Hanschka Fine Metalwork, Vineyard Haven

Custom, handcrafted wrought iron, bronze, and stainless steel handrails, fireplace screens, etc.


Artist or craftsman? What brought you to blacksmith forging?

I think of myself on the cusp between being an artist and a craftsman or tradesman.

I have a degree in mechanical engineering; then I worked at Gannon and Benjamin for about five years making wooden boats, which was like getting a second mechanical engineering degree.

After Gannon and Benjamin, I was at Penikese Island School working with juvenile delinquents, where I was a jack of all trades, as my job was to come up with projects to make things with the kids. It’s a very low-tech environment out there, with only cold running water and little electricity … I decided I wanted to do some metalwork, and a blacksmith forge was the only thing that made sense. I welded up a kind of primitive forge and started hammering away out there. That’s how it started, out at Penikese — that’s the first forging I ever did. I had done some bronze yacht-hardware fabrication at Gannon and Benjamin. A while after I left Penikese, I decided to try to do metalwork full-time, here on the Vineyard.


Is there a call for your work on the Vineyard?

Deciding to take the plunge and become a self-employed metalworker has worked out pretty well here on the Vineyard. I don’t know that I’ve gotten rich at it, but I’m certainly kept busy, and I enjoy the work. I’m seldom doing the same thing twice. Every job draws on other jobs. I think of it as three different things: the interesting design work — nuts and bolts, problem-solving kind of stuff; the artistic creativity; and the straight-up work — grinding and pounding and drilling and welding. It has a good combination of those three elements.


Who are your clients?

My clients are a mix of private clients, businesses and homeowners. Also, I work a lot with contractors and caretakers. I do a lot of handrails, similar in scope. People may have some steps, and they want to safely get down the steps and they want something that looks good. Also, big building companies — right now I have two very substantial jobs that are multipart railing systems with several sections that need guardrails to prevent [people] from falling. Another subspecialty of mine is fireplace screens. In particular, I do many door installations on fireplaces. Recently there is a code that requires doors on fireplaces. My materials are bronze, wrought iron, and stainless steel, with a smattering of copper and brass.


Are you often asked to incorporate a specific design into the work?

Recently I’ve designed dogwood blossoms, morning glories, roses and created conch and nautilus shells on fireplace screens. I’ve done quite a few scallop shells, it’s an easy shape to do, and pleasing as a rose. Phragmites are actually very picturesque, although they are an invasive species. I’ve done two ornamental screens with wetlands reeds, which are pretty cool. I kind of like having a specific motif — it doesn’t come along all the time and it’s been more often fauna than flora. I’ve done a handrail that ends in a dragon’s head on either end, and driveway gates with whales’ tails on the end. And then I did a great job not too long ago: a handrail with, down at the bottom, a whale’s tail, then at the top end, the whale’s head.


Tell us about the Edgartown handrails.

The handrail I did for the Edgartown Courthouse steps and others in town are all bronze handrails. The finial design is called a lamb’s tongue — the swoopy curve on the end. I certainly didn’t invent the shape, but it’s my interpretation of it. Bronze is a great material, more expensive than wrought iron, but it holds up beautifully, requires no maintenance, and is a particularly good material for handrails, where hands tend to smooth and polish it up with use.


How much does “form follow function”?

Pretty much all of it. That’s one reason I think of myself as a craftsman as much as an artist. I almost never do anything that I would classify as sculpture, as a piece of art only. That’s why I come and visit these handrails two years later, and the first thing I do is give them a whack and see how stiff they are, and see if they are still holding up. For handrails in particular, I try to think a lot about making them as useful as possible. I don’t yet need handrails in my own life (we all are headed in that direction), but I try to really imagine the placement of the handrail to make it most useful. How the handrail will relate to the traffic flow. Landscape steps that curve around down someone’s lawn, that’s a whole other imagination process, where to put the handrail that will work out best. Then you imagine kids running around and where it will work for them.

Form follows function — I didn’t make that one up.


What is your favorite challenge: the decorative versus utilitarian goal?

The combination of those two: I really like the irregular curved landscape railings where there is a substantial layout challenge to get the hard metal material to flow in a swooping graceful curve, making it match and be a good functioning railing for the situation and making it look good. All of those things.

The mathematical intricacies of curved sloped railings are a very satisfying challenge … if you can pull them off.

I really like that.


Joan LeLacheur, Black Eagle Mint, Aquinnah

Wampum tiles: jewelry for the home.


When did you start working with wampum?

I came to the Island 44 years ago now. I had done some research about wampum, and found a book at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum called “Money of the American Indians,” about the importance of the quahog shell in the lives of East Coast North American native people, and how the wampum beads were made. Wampum means different things to different people. I started making wampum beads from the quahog shells I found on the beaches, but not necessarily council beads, which are the traditional Native American beads.

During this early time, when I was in my 20s, I rented from the Benton family, staying in Thomas Hart Benton’s house in Aquinnah on Herring Creek. Benton’s son Tippi was living next door. I was taking care of the rat problem by having many cats — that was Tippi’s idea. It was Charlie Witham and Kate Taylor and I — we had a little mint set up in the Benton house, making beads and jewelry using the ancient methods.


Venetian tiles as inspiration

After carrying on with the beads and the jewelry, it was always my desire to travel to Italy, and especially to Venice. For my 50th birthday and my husband Richard’s 50th birthday, we went to Venice, where I was so inspired by the mosaic and tilework there. It must have taken centuries — all stonework intricately put together in optical-illusion patterns — beautiful, using all different color marble. At that time I was making small jewelry-size mosaics using my resins and cut-up shells. But to make something bigger: That did it! I had to figure out how I could make tiles.


Making bisque tiles

Then I ordered bisque tile that was fired but not glazed. These I could build on top of — that’s what my tiles are. I like to use moonsnail, wampum, sea glass, the inner column of the conch, little turquoise pieces, and abalone. First, I’ll find the shells … I’ll cut shapes and flatten them as much as possible. I have a diamond blade jeweler’s saw. The wine bottles I’ll cut with my jeweler’s saw, getting them as thin as possible. Then I’ll decide what colors I want. I’ll mix all these pots of epoxy resin with pigment. It makes me so thirsty — I get so thirsty for it — the color, it’s very important.

I like to think of the early artisans who made tiles in Venice; like theirs, these tiles are quite sturdy. I’d like mine to be perfectly smooth, so I cut all the shells as thin as possible, then squish the pieces in the pigmented resin. After waiting five days, the resin is cured and I am able to grind the tile down to a smooth surface. I have a lap-grinding wheel; it takes three or four grindings to get them flat, then I’ll put a polish on them. I call one shape “feathers,” then I’ll make a compass pattern with the four directions or points on the compass.


How have you used your tiles in kitchens and other parts of the house?

I call my tiles jewelry for the home,” as people can use my tiles in kitchens and bathrooms as a motif to add a touch of “Island treasure” to their homes. A client was designing a new kitchen in Chilmark, and had the idea to set my little tiles in a large area of aggregate material to make a countertop. We worked together quite a bit — the finished counter was really beautiful.

I will give clients a palette of color, and we can look at books and can choose color. I did a kitchen for someone who was really into green — a certain color green — I think I made 13 tiles, which were interspersed.

I had wooden frames made so I can carry the accent tiles here and there; people can take them out and try them wherever they think appropriate. Maybe tiles on the back of a fireplace, or on the mantle. I make little wooden stools with inlay. I want people to be able to chose their tiles, so I haven’t adhered the tiles yet. They will need to be grouted in once a selection is chosen.

Often I give a tile to a friend who is building a house. My neighbors all have my tiles.


Where can people see your tiles?

Martha’s Vineyard Tile Co. has a sampler of my tiles; they send me orders. People can also contact me directly for special projects.


Johnny Hoy, Johnny Hoy Masonry, West Tisbury

Masonry: stone fireplaces, bake ovens, fancy brickwork.


Tell us about your work with stone — the masonry. You also have other talents: music and fishing.

I’ll do any kind of masonry. I started out as a production block and brick guy, mixing mud for my stepfather, who liked to do masonry. So I’ve been doing it on and off since I was 13, and I’m 60 now. Luckily I do have other talents. I kind of evolved into doing three things that I really really enjoy. My work is roughly a third masonry, a third music, and a third fishing — a really nice balance. I was lucky enough to get land when you could get land on the Island, and got over the hump. Eventually I was able to shift into doing more things rather than specializing — it’s a pretty nice life.


Can you always keep all three in balance?

Sometimes you get a big masonry job and you just have to do it. In the summers I’d rather not be doing masonry if I can help it. I try to clam and fish all summer. And play music. Sometimes we get a tour — we’ve been to the Caribbean for a month stand, and St. Bart’s and Norway 12 times. We went to South Africa for three weeks, and then we made a record after that. Sometimes you get on a streak with one job or another and run with it.

Sure, you can burn out. Especially if I know there’s fish but I’m too busy doing masonry, it kills me. If I have to finish something and can’t fish, it can be really hard. Or if I don’t have a masonry job in the winter and I’m freezing doing shellfishing, I can miss a nice inside masonry job. The music is kind of nice ’cause it goes year-round: In the winter the locals get sick of you, so every weekend we go off-Island. In the summer, the locals don’t go out, and every week there’s a turnover of new faces, so you can keep working in the same places, you sleep in your own bed. And go clamming and fishing in the day.


Excellence in stonework

With stonemasonry it’s a really high bar around here. We’ve had a building boom for as long as I can remember on the Island, and there’s a lot of money. There’s some good work being done, so a lot of competition — it has to be a good job. Customers are benefiting from a high level of craftsmanship. The trade itself is benefiting. Excellence is a good thing.

Now people have been educated to recognize the difference between mediocre and excellent work.  


Special stone from off-Island

Back 30 or 35 years ago, stoneworker Lew French started bringing truckloads of stone down from Maine — we’d never seen fits like he was getting, or stone like he was using. We realized we can bring ten-wheeler loads of stone from wherever. If we’re driving around New England and see nice stone walls, we can go up to some farmer and say, Can I buy a load of rock? So I bought a dump truck, and I did a lot of that. Every rock that you throw in that truck is a beaut — you can almost have a name for them; you can’t wait to use them.


A leave … yeah, baby

I work alone, and I’ll try a lot of rocks, and they’ll all fit, but when you stand back, a lot of ’em say … nawh … some of them say … maybe … and then you’ll put one in and it says … yeah … and that’s the one you go with. You can try 10 rocks before one says, yeah, baby.

You put that thing in, and we call it a leave.

The top and the side will send you off in a new direction … It’s got to have harmony and it’s gotta have rhythm. It can’t just lay there, it’s got to be comfortable, but it’s also got to move.

I guess the easiest way to explain, because I’m a musician: It’s rhythm and harmony, it’s got to have the rock with the roll …

At least that’s what you’re shooting for.




Billy Hoff, Lamplighter Corner, West Tisbury

Handmade solid brass and copper lanterns.


Tell us about your period lanterns

Lamplighter is an established line of lighting. We have our standard models: sconces, pendants, post-mounted, that are all colonial in style. Our Edgartown Street lamp model is a replica of an actual pre-existing Island street lamp. That’s the line. I didn’t design them, they are all standard, roughly based on period designs that are in the public domain. New England vernacular. Occasionally people will want something a little more modern. I’m always open to talking to people to change the design. We may look at things askew and see the potential.


In a world with 3D printing, I’m using tools that are close to 100 years old: the breaks, foot shear, roller. The lamps are still made the way they were originally. To rush it, the quality would suffer. Each lantern is made by hand. Even though it’s very formulaic — the cutting, the crimping, the folding — every one is different. For me, there’s no artistry in this. I have my plans; this is what I do. Each one has a formula. All are made right here. I cut the glass for each one; I have my glass templates, and I wire all my pieces.

Originally, when Hollis Fisher started the company, around 1967, the Lamplighter store was in Edgartown, where Tracker Home Decor is located now. I have the Gazette story from 1970 that explains how Hollis started making lanterns as a hobby, then it became a business.  


Who are your clients?

I get jobs primarily from architects. Patrick Ahearn has been great — he sends people my way. Over the winter I’ve had a couple large jobs with Robert Stern’s firm in New York City; a big job out at Pohogonot and one in the Hamptons.


Cogs and wheels and a chicken feeder

I did the chandeliers for State Road restaurant. They hired interior designer Michael Smith, who shared with me some ideas for chandeliers. I found some old tractor hubs — he loved them — it was almost an agrarian spin on a kitschy wagon wheel fixture. I was thinking more cogs and wheels, just the shape and form of them. Actually that project brought me maybe seven or eight commissions of similar stuff, each one different depending on materials. Local gallery owner Chris Morse needed something over his dining room table, and in his gallery I spied a ship model with a long hull. I love when I can just take something and let it exist on its own. So this was a model hull; I rigged it up here in my shop, hanging for awhile, living with it. I used some great hardware off stuff I found.

Recently a client brought in this long galvanized chicken feeder, an industrial piece. I can add some fluorescent tubes in there — all this stuff can be repurposed, and it’s beautiful, it’s well made.


Do you find your fine art painting an opposite to making lanterns?

I studied art in undergrad, and I went to graduate school for painting; I now have a painting studio in Vineyard Haven. Yes, they are really kind of opposites: the fine art and the craftmaking. Making lamps is again a little formulaic; there are rules, it’s linear. There is a sequence that must be followed. The art is all about no rules. It’s nice — a good balance. Making lanterns is my bread and butter: these designs have existed before me, and it’s nice not being emotionally connected, where I can just worry about the quality.

With painting, I get to leave my comfort zone and kind of stretch a little.


How do you see yourself evolving?

It all feeds each other — the art and the craft. I should get someone in the shop I can train; it would give me more time to pursue commission lighting work. This is my day job … the painting is my weekend work. It’s great the fact that I don’t rely on fine art to make money; I think the work would be compromised, and I find it’s not. I do whatever I want with it.


680 State Road, West Tisbury


Melissa Patterson, About Signs and Design, West Tisbury

Signs, graphics, design branding, and materials.


What got you started in sign making?

I was trained in painting, illustration, and graphic design in art school. Then Tom Hodgson taught me hand-lettering and the art of sign making 30 years ago. I got hooked, and loved it. Tom was an amazing teacher, providing me with a great opportunity.

But then I reached a point when I didn’t want to breathe in fumes from the oil-based paint anymore. I wanted to do more design work, as I was interested in the decorative and pictorial. Designing signs with the aid of computer programs allowed me to expand sign making to include printed waterproof graphics. This produces a faster, more versatile product, and these digital files can also be used on business cards, ads, menus, vehicles, labels, etc. Edgartown, being the one town on the Island that wants their signs to be painted, keeps me still holding a brush.

I split my time equally between graphic design work and sign making, loving each trade. Right now I’m designing and printing some product labels for Reindeer Bridge Holistics, Flat Point Farm, MV Sea Salt, and Kitchen Porch. I also print banners, produce graphics for vehicles, and print fine art for artists, photos or paintings reproduced on canvas or paper. The large-format printer is a versatile tool, and knowing how to use the programs to enhance imagery makes anything possible. I like to shake things up by adding new products and techniques. I keep raising my hand, saying, Oh, I’ll figure that out.


How much challenge do you have aesthetically?

When I interview my client, I learn what style they like. I interpret their vision and show them some ideas with different fonts, layouts, colors, etc. I’ll provide a few options, all of which I think are winners. After a fine-tuning process, we are ready to brand the image. I’ll then make the proportions work for whatever the application. Signs are interesting — they need to be read. The Internet doesn’t know a sign’s location, how fast cars go by — the contrast necessary to make the sign stand out — if it’s a shady or a sunny place.

A sign from the Internet doesn’t have the Vineyard flavor, nor the Vineyard style in my opinion.

What makes a sign design successful for the Vineyard?

I want to honor my client’s business look by incorporating their colors, font, and logo, and also have “sign integrity” on the Island. I take into account what the Vineyard is, which is a broad range of styles. I work with the building inspectors and sign committees on-Island to stay within the bylaws. A lot of thought goes into making the proportions correct so a sign is easily read and beautiful. It’s commercial art, but sometimes feels like fine art.

Small business branding

I help people brand their businesses, with savvy tag lines and good advertising venues. We often brainstorm together, digging deep to get to that place combining words with visuals for a rich and authentic feel. When we take the time, those ideas really work.