It was a warm summer day in 1990 when I first heard it. I was strolling through an art show, and the mesmerizing sound didn’t quite fit the setting. An earthy, steady rhythm grew louder as I approached: whomp, whomp, whomp…whomp, whomp, whomp.
And there it was.
Behind a display booth was a Potawatomi tradition-keeper, methodically striking a fresh black ash log with a heavy mallet. I watched in awe as growth rings lifted one by one. He handed me a fresh splint and showed me how to pull it into satiny ribbons of wood that could be tied into a knot without breaking. I had been weaving rattan baskets for five years and was looking for a different medium. A sound had drawn me to black ash, and I was immediately hooked.
A few weeks later, I followed Mike Sagataw into the wet woods behind my Upper Peninsula home. “Wear your swampers and grab a saw,” he said. “We’re headed for the swamp.”
After choosing a suitable basket tree and sawing partway through its trunk, Mike removed the saw and reached into his pouch. A tobacco offering thanked Mother Earth. A prayer was spoken in a language I didn’t speak, but somehow understood. Mike had just introduced me to another beautiful sound: Anishnaabek.
Once I got the hang of black ash, I took a hickory bark class from Tom McColley and he invited me to The Basketry School in Chloe, WV. Tom taught how to select and prepare white oak splint, how to carve and shape handles, and how to photograph finished work. His wife Connie taught the finer points of weaving and shaping, pointing to nature for inspiration and color. I loved watching Connie weave, and I loved watching Tom think his way through a complex structural challenge.
I was awarded several internships to The Basketry School, and one year Tom challenged me to explore form over function. For a full year, I was to photograph every piece I made and send the pic to Tom. Any weaving that Tom felt was functional had to go into the wood stove. We heated with wood, so it was a pretty serious challenge. Fortunately, every 1993 weaving passed Tom’s litmus test.
I still weave with hand pounded black ash, hand split white oak, and other hardwoods that find their way into my work. I no longer live up north with ash trees behind my home, but my splint is still harvested and prepared with respect and gratitude to Mother Earth. These days, I am content to leave the prep work to a younger generation so my hands can enjoy the rhythm of weaving.
My work has evolved, as have I.
The Nantucket baskets presented here honor the structure that my Cape Cod ancestors made centuries ago, as well as the traditions of hand hewn oak and ash. Some have simple weaving patterns, while others have complex spirals that mirror those found in nautilus shells and the milky way. All are prepared with the utmost of skill and care, so they may be passed from one generation to the next.
Chi miigwech to those who entrusted their basketry wisdom to me. I am honored to help preserve tradition.