Creek craft school pressed into downsizing

The Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking has become yet another local institution seriously affected by the coronavirus, but this victim will survive. The closure this month of the renowned Roberts Creek school will be followed by the opening next year of a scaled-down version in a new Sunshine Coast location. 

The decision to downsize followed a difficult six-month period, co-founder Robert Van Norman told Coast Reporter. Travel restrictions on international students had hampered operations since the spring. Then a September session with six Canadian students was interrupted for weeks when Van Norman caught a suspicious cold, which turned out not to be COVID. But Van Norman and wife Yvonne then assessed the situation and quietly announced on their website that they’d be closing shop in the Creek. 

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“There are days that are sad,” said Van Norman. “But certainly, for the most part, we’re looking forward to this new adventure. It is going to be a smaller, more simplified version of what we’re in right now.” 

The couple has purchased a 10-acre Keats Island property, which features a post-and-beam building that will become the school’s new home. The plan is that in May, Inside Passage will take on a maximum of three students at a time for its primary cabinetmaking course, which is taught over four, 10-week terms. The school will also go online next spring for the first time with an introductory course called the Soul of the Plane. That costly project was made possible by a Rebuild Business Grant from the Sunshine Coast Credit Union, Van Norman noted gratefully, but he added that he’s not intent at this time to put more courses on the Internet. 

“I’m not technologically inclined,” he said, referring to digital technology. “If we see there’s a demand for more of the online, yes, I can see us expanding. But my hope is we’ll be able to continue with the hands-on learning because, to be honest, that’s where my passion is as a craftsman and a teacher. I like the personal interaction with the students.” 

That interaction has been a tradition at the school, which over its 16 years has earned a solid if offbeat international reputation, suited to its location behind the Gumboot Café and the Melomania music store, among the set of shops known as the Heart of the Creek. The school’s main course of study – which has been taken by hundreds of students from 41 different countries – is called the Impractical Cabinetmaker Program. That might sound tongue-in-cheek, but the painstaking pace required to teach craftsmanship can seem impractical in these days of machine-made furniture and 3-D printing. 

It’s just a 10-minute commute to Keats Island by water-taxi from Gibsons, but the vision is eventually to house students there. “The property is large enough that we can put in a couple sleeping cabins and a common kitchen and bath house so we can have on-site accommodation. That’s our long-term goal,” Van Norman said. “I suspect that’s a few years away.”

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