A visit to a Connecticut barn started it all for Robert Shaw. The barn belonged to a friend, an antiques dealer, and it was layered in baskets.
“It was just full of them, all kinds,” Shaw said in an interview. “I was intrigued and he got me to start looking at them seriously. I just wanted to know everything about them from that point on.”
That led to months of research that took him from big city museums to Native American reservations to small rural enclaves in the deep South. The result is the book “American Baskets” ($45, Clarkson Potter Publishers), which Shaw hopes will help give this most traditional and domestic of objects its due.
“I’m fascinated with their cultural significance and their aesthetic value,” he explained. “Good baskets can be great art, ranking up there with the best folk or decorative art this country has.”
From Art to Home Design
There’s also renewed interest in their home design use. Several shops sell low-cost, hand-woven baskets for use on tables or in corners as eye-catchers. At the higher end, collectors are putting more valuable examples behind glass in their homes to be presented as fine art, next to the sculptures, paintings and prints.
“There are all sorts of people collecting these days for many reasons,” Shaw said. “A hundred years ago, every home had several of them. Now, it’s a way to soften an interior by bringing an Old World feel to it.”
Whatever the focus, Shaw believes that knowing their history and symbolism adds to our appreciation.
“I know they can be admired without knowing anything, really, about them, just enjoyed as objects of visual beauty with interesting patterns or forms,” he said. “But I like to think they’re windows into cultures [from] Native American cultures to other ethnic cultures like African American or the Pennsylvania Dutch,” which may not be as well known for their basketry.
Beyond that, Shaw said they appeal to our love of pure craftsmanship, and what it takes to make something good. “They speak to us of a way of interfacing with the physical world [because] they embody time, they take a great deal of time to make,” he said.
“When people look at a craft and they said they can’t imagine how much time it took to make it, they are really at the essence [of basketry]. It’s about having that relationship with natural materials to create something that is both useful and beautiful.”
Praised as Collectibles
Native American baskets tend to get most of the attention from curators and collectors, and for good reason. Of all the cultures spotlighted in Shaw’s book, the most striking examples come from tribes from all over the country, including California and as far away as Alaska.
The photos in “American Baskets” reveal similarities between regional groups, whether it’s the Aleuts of Alaska, the Hupa of Northern California or the Louisiana Chitmacha. The weaving is intricate and refined, often with bold abstract or figurative imagery.
For instance, a granary jar basket by the White Mountain Apache from Arizona or New Mexico is accented with several small crosses, dogs and human figures. A Hopi wicker plaque features jagged red and green markings evoking lightning.
“The Hopi have many symbols that relate to weather and the sky and, in particular, to the rain because [they farmed] in a desert climate,” Shaw explained. “They are connecting points to their lives . . . you find significant use of symbols” in many Native American baskets.
The religious Shakers, however, wouldn’t dare decorate with colorful symbols. But their baskets grabbed Shaw’s attention for their simple elegance, which always reflect the Shakers’ approach to life.
“Shaker crafts embody the basic tenets of Shaker faith,” he writes. “Their products were ingenious, carefully made, sturdy, harmonious and, above all, plain.”
The Shakers sold them, as did Appalachian basket-makers who also traded them among themselves or with shop owners for goods and services. In fact, Shaw pointed out, families in this poor region often survived by practicing the craft traditions and techniques passed on from earlier generations.
Dolly Parton? You Bet
More contemporary Appalachia basket-makers can come up with surprising results. Although the region’s artisans have historically been inventive in their use of form, a modern piece dubbed the “Dolly” basket should tickle country music fans. And those with voluptuous tastes.
The inspiration was Dolly Parton. “The baskets ribs were pulled out to create a pair of bulges on the sides,” Shaw writes, “and the exaggerated rib form was then cleverly woven
Shaw found the unusual almost everywhere he went, but perhaps the most satisfying visit was to the crafters in the tidewater areas of South Carolina and Georgia. In particular, the author was impressed by the baskets made by African American families in Mount Pleasant, N.C.
The often-ignored styles, which are avidly produced today, can be traced to slaves who created these rugged baskets to thresh rice, a prime commodity at the time.
“The wonderful point is that at Mount Pleasant, like elsewhere, the traditions are not dead [but] are practiced by new generations,” Shaw said. “Basketry is alive and well. . . . We just have to look to see that.”