Fifth-generation cooper Rick Stewart has been active in the ancient craft for 43 years. Coopering is the art of making wood vessels such as butter churns, buckets, barrels, canteens, pitchers, and piggins, among others, with the wood staves held together only with wood bands. Rick’s grandfather, Alex Stewart, became a “national treasure” of folk arts in the United States and earned the NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1983. The Stewart’s coopering has been documented for decades. In 1985, John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia, wrote a well-loved book called “Alex Stewart: Portrait of a Pioneer.” In 1973, students from ETSU made a documentary about his craft. After apprenticing with his grandfather, Rick began demonstrating across the country, including at the Festival of American Folklife in Washington DC in 1983 and 1986. Rick also spent six months in Japan in 1988 demonstrating and sharing his traditional coopering as part of the US-Japan Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship.
“Coopering is not just my history, it is everyone’s,” Rick says. “Years ago every community had coopers to make all their churns, buckets, barrels, tubs, etc. Today it is very rare to find a traditional Cooper. Many people do not even know what a cooper by trade makes. I do not know of anyone practicing Coopering in my area.”
After many years working in the car business and shifting focus away from folk art, Rick has returned in recent years to his love of coopering. His apprentice and son, Brendon Stewart, is already a fine wood worker who is now determined to follow in the family craft legacy. Brendon is eager to train to become a sixth generation cooper in the Stewart Family. He explains: “I want to learn to make vessels as good as my ancestors to keep the tradition of coopering alive.”
This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.