Sunday, August 24, 2014

Woven Relations: Baskets from the Ralph T. Coe Foundation Collection

On August 19th another exciting event took place at the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.  It was the opening of an exhibition of Native American Baskets.  A few weeks ago I wrote about a Cherokee basket maker, Shan Gashorn.  Unfortunately, Shan came on the scene with an innovative style only after Ted Coe died in 2010 but she attended this event.

The exhibition consisted of baskets from an older tradition.  Last year at the Fennimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York there was an exhibition called, “Plain & Fancy: Native American Splint Baskets”.   The majority of them were borrowed from the Coe Foundation.  The Coe curator, Bruce Bernstein, used these East Coast and Midwest baskets that the Coe had lent and expanded it adding other baskets from the Coe Collection from the Southwest.  The exhibition turned out to be dense in number and quality of the pieces on view.

Bruce Bernstein showing a visitor through the Exhibition

On opening day there was a panel with 3 basket weavers speaking about their work moderated by Bruce and joined by Fenimore curator of the Thaw collection, Eva Fognell.  The basket weavers were Kelly Church, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe from Central Michigan; Theresa Secord, Penobscot from Maine and Ronnie-Leigh Goeman, Onondaga/Eel Clan from Upstate New York.

Eva Fognell, Theresa Secord, Ronnie-Leigh Goeman, Kelly Church, Bruce Bernstein

Their main theme was to keep the art of basket making alive and keep to the traditional methods that have come down from generation to generation.  It was pointed out that things that are now called innovative were actually already done by the generation of their grandparents.

We can look at baskets as beautiful objects of whimsy but originally most of them were made for use.  Hopi sifter baskets were used for sifting corn and large baskets were used for carrying and storage, while in the Northeast baskets were also used for gathering berries.  During my camp days in Maine I bought a green basket which I was told was made by a local tribe and made from grass.  It was clearly made for the market and probably sold for a very few dollars.   It was a gift for my parents and I was pleased that they used it for many years on the breakfast table as a bread basket.

What the casual observer does not realize is that the actual making of a basket takes up only about 25% of the weavers time.  The other 75% is finding the right grasses or wood materials and preparing them for weaving.  The artist cannot make that many baskets in any one year and cannot make a living as a basket weaver if they must survive on what a youngster can pay for a gift for his parents.  Here is a video of what happens after the artist finds the one in ten trees that might serve their purpose:


Theresa Secord was trained as a geologist who through an apprenticeship with one of the elder basket makers of her tribe, Madeline Tomer Shay, found basket making to be her calling.  She was distressed that the tradition of basket making was fading away and established the Maine Indian Basket Alliance which started out with just 55 weavers at an average age of 63 and now numbers over 200 with an average age in their 40’s.

Kelly Church comes from a large family of basket weavers working with black ash.  They have a different challenge, the Emerald Ash Borer is a type of beetle which destroys Ash trees.  Of an estimated 800 million trees, 600 million have submitted to this blight.  She has a quest to warn other basket making tribes of the dangers of the Ash Borer and to find ways to preserve the tradition.  Every year she taught a course on basket making at the University of Michigan. Then one year she wasn’t asked to teach it and went right to the course catalog to see that the course was indeed still being taught but by her former students.  She considers that a great success in preserving the tradition.

Ronnie-Leigh Goeman is also a Black Ash basket maker and the blight has not hit New York as fiercely yet but they are preparing for it.  She works with her husband, Stonehorse Goeman, a sculptor to do collaborative work.  I always find it intriguing when artists do collaborations because often the results are greater than the sum of its parts.

Bruce Bernstein summed up by recalling that Kelly Church had called herself an activist as well as an artist and suggested that we should all become activists to preserve the art of basketry as it has been done through the ages.  More realistically we can become advocates by acquiring the work either for our homes or institutions.

The founder of the Foundation, Ted Coe, believed the foundation should be about, Connoisseurship, Education and Collecting.  Among the over 100 visitors attending the Coe event were well-known basket makers, scholars, museum personnel and collectors, an amazing mix making for some interesting discussion which is what the Foundation is all about:  a place to see great Indian art but also to discuss it and look at it in different ways.  I believe this was a big step in fulfilling Ted’s wishes.

The exhibition is open to everyone who is interested but an appointment is necessary.  Please get in touch with Rachel Wixom, Executive Director of the foundation, at 505-983-6372.

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