Duncan MacMaster’s Home Shrines Honor the Divine Within
By Claudia Petrick
WOOD FILLS EVERY corner of Duncan MacMaster’s rambling shop near the railroad tracks just off Fourth Street. There’s no music, no ringing phones, no humming machines—it’s as quiet yet full of life as the forest floor. Boards are neatly stacked everywhere, some standing on end, others in piles. An orderly progression of Japanese woodworking tools stands ready on one table. Duncan works quietly in one corner near the window, bent over a piece of Alaskan yellow cedar destined to be part of his latest undertaking, wooden shrines for the home and garden.
“Come meet my friends,” he says as he invites a visitor into his office, where four finished shrines and their inhabitants are arranged on the floor. Each one is a beautifully finished wooden frame, about four feet tall, housing a deity or saint. Duncan has developed four basic lines: one for Buddha, one for Chinese saint Kuan Yin, one for Hindu deities, and one for Christian figures.
“I was out walking one day,” Duncan says, “and suddenly it occurred to me that everyone in Japan and India has shrines in their homes. I thought I could make shrines here in the U.S. and create a website to sell them nationally.”
Indian architect Deepak Bakshi provided the dimensions for the Hindu shrines, which are designed according to the principles of Sthapatya Veda. The Kuan Yin shrine, with its gently curving roof, incorporates principles of Feng Shui. Revered for centuries in pre-revolutionary China as the mother of compassion, Kuan Yin traditionally wears violet robes. Her name translates as “she who hears the weeping world.”
The shrine housing a figure of Buddha reflects the simple, elegant aesthetic associated with Japanese temples. Its sole decorations are red silk curtains on either side of the figure. The shrines for Mother Mary and Jesus are gothic in style, inspired by traditional church architecture.
Duncan was drawn to woodworking at the early age of 14, when he met architect and furniture maker George Nakashima while traveling with his parents in Pennsylvania. “What impressed me most was his love for the wood,” he says. After a short career in landscape architecture, Duncan spent years building homes and making hand-planed wood trim for the interiors. Over much of the last two years, Duncan lived in China building a home for Fairfield businessman Alan Unger.
“While I was traveling in China, I went into an antique store that was just packed with two floors of Kuan Yin statues—but that isn’t where they belong! These are not little tchotchkes for the bureau to be forgotten—these are about spirituality.”
Duncan hopes these lovingly crafted shrines will help create a place in people’s homes where they can reflect on the divine aspects of life.
Constructed of mostly solid wood, each shrine is finished by hand with a Japanese plane to leave a buttery-smooth surface and bring out the wood’s texture. This hand work, Duncan explains, helps instill consciousness into the material, something appropriate for a structure meant to house some expression of the divine.
“For something to really be a shrine it has to make it to a different level, and that requires human attention,” he says. “You go in a cathedral and you can feel that energy, even if there isn’t religious service. This is why cathedrals are covered with sculpture—to lock in that energy, to impart levels of higher consciousness into the work.”
Kuan Yin, who once was honored in every home in China, may once again find a place of exaltation in a new country. Demonstrating with one of the carved wooden sculptures he brought back from China, Duncan places Kuan Yin on the floor, then moves the sculpture to its place in the shrine. “When Kuan Yin goes into these shrines,” he says. “it’s like putting a reflector behind a light bulb—her energy gets focused more powerfully, because she has a home.”