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Weave arrived

Basketry has graduated from country-fair staple to sophisticated urban art form, says Emma Crichton-Miller.

December 21 2009
Emma Crichton-Miller

Think of a basket and the images that come to mind are usually woven laundry bins or hefty log baskets for those hankering after a rural hearth. Or you might visualise a charming, linen-lined willow basket holding fragrant soap or shiny apples. What you might not have imagined was what greeted visitors to Origin, the Crafts Council’s annual selling show of contemporary craft, located at Somerset House in London. Guiding you into the show was a white-hooped airy tunnel constructed from bamboo and tied with recycled inner tube by basket-maker Lee Dalby (similar pieces about £4,000). Inside you felt like a fly in a giant web looking at the sky through a lattice, with space bent around you.

Meanwhile, hanging from the edge of the tent were three enormous curved woven willow nests created by Laura Ellen Bacon (from £2,000). Like extraordinary organic excrescences for mythical birds, they brought a different life altogether into the classically ordered courtyard. Inside the tent, interspersed between the other stands, were examples of what contemporary basket-weaving has become – the stunning poetic work of Kazuhito Takadoi, Asahi (from £1,375); the tumbling tubular, coils of Shuna Rendel (from £500); Dail Behennah’s intriguing fishing line cubic structure, Shadow Study (from £100); and Lois Walpole’s beautiful bowl constructed from corks (from £200). Laura Street (from £25) and Elizabeth Murton (from £200) have moved even further away from what you and I might call a basket – with Street’s mixed-media, paper-and-clay installa­tion, Remains, and Murton’s striking, sculptural woven-newspaper piece, Module. This was basketry’s coming-out party, the moment when it graduated from country fairs to centre stage in museum exhibitions and proved itself, at its best, a commercially desirable art form.

Basket-weaving was for hundreds of years a fundamental skill providing ingenious solutions to the trapping, storage and transportation of basic commodities; it was woven into the fabric of everyday life. Baskets not only carried and protected goods and produce, in many instances they provided a system for measuring them – in pecks and half pecks, bushels and so on. In Britain, during the 19th century, there were thousands of basket-makers and hundreds of apprenticeships. By the 1950s, however, a terminal decline had set in. Wooden boxes, net bags and cheap baskets from China supplanted the time-costly products of British and European basket-makers. Traditional techniques were forgotten, traditional basket forms lost. Basket-weaving became a quick catch-all term for any redundant craft taken up by those with time on their hands. Its role at the heart of both the rural and the urban economy – and, indeed, as graceful emissaries between the two – had been lost.

But over the past 15 years basket-making has experienced not just a revival but a reinvention. Led by one of the country’s most expert makers, Mary Butcher, recently designer-in-residence at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and curator of Origin Intervention’s basketry display, basket-making has been transformed from a backward-looking hobby to an expressive, exploratory medium, producing objects as sophisticated and at ease in a contemporary urban interior as they might be in a Dorset cottage. While still representing only three per cent of the craft sector, with declining opportunities for the transmission of skills, basket-makers have quietly taken hold of their genre and run with it. As Lizzie Farey (pieces from £180), whose graceful willow-wall drawings have recently been on show in Scotland said, “I’ve always thought you need to break through and use the material to work things out.”

A prime example of this approach is Butcher, who learned her traditional skills from the artisan maker, Alwyne Hawkins. While a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University in a radical embroidery studio in the textile department, she was inspired to use her materials to create work that slipped its leash. In her final show, she suspended three large cones, loosely based on eel traps, from the ceiling. Since then she has worked in many different kinds of materials, from bark and willow to plastic washing line. She has produced flying sketches of fishing nets to be hung from the ceiling or placed on a wall, and gracefully tensioned baskets that could also be harps humming in the wind, perfect to sit on a table top.

Butcher sometimes hangs chains of bark rings from the wall, like a textile, or densely weaves pieces of it into sculptural shapes. She sells everything she makes (from £70), so while you can admire her work in museums, to buy a piece you will need to look out for new shows. Butcher has become a teacher and mentor, balancing her responsibility as a guardian of traditional techniques with her desire to teach the creative use of those techniques. She admits that even the traditional notion of what a basket is has almost vanished. “It merges so seamlessly with 3-D sculpture, and that is giving us a lot of freedom,” she says.

British basket-making is not alone in this. All over Europe, but especially in Scandinavia – seek out the delicate work of Markku Kosonen from Finland (from £300) – where traditional basket-weaving techniques had almost entirely died out, there are strong revival movements. In the US, creative basket-making, like all the fibre arts, has had a higher profile, with its status raised by the quality work of pioneering makers such as Ed Rossbach and John McQueen, and the passion of collectors such as Tom Grotta and Rhonda Brown of Browngrotta gallery. As Butcher explains, part of the reason for the vibrancy of contemporary basket-making in Britain is that makers now draw their inspiration from Native American, Japanese and Indonesian, as well as European, basket-making. “The range of our knowledge is increasing all the time, and it is being transmitted very quickly,” she says. And while some come to basket-making through the traditional route of the City & Guilds technical training, or by learning from one of the few remaining master artisans, others are drawn from fields such as ceramics and textiles – even dance.

For Joanna Gilmour, a former dancer whose carefully constructed pieces (from £15) resemble flowers and geometric forms, making baskets is “a kind of choreographic sculpting combining physical and mental endeavour”, searching for fundamental structures that inform all life.

All this is not to say that in skilled hands the most perfect traditional basket-making is not in itself beautiful. David Drew, for instance, makes the most exquisite traditional baskets (from £25), as the recent travelling show, European Baskets, curated by Butcher and Joe Hogan, made clear. But there is a sense that the appreciation of this is for aficionados only. For those of us who are generally more excited by the sculptural and expressive potential of baskets, it is the way these makers divert and redeploy their techniques that offers the most reward for the viewer.

Take Joe Hogan, a modern master of traditional Irish basketry, who, like many basket-weavers, has embedded himself deeply in the environment from which his materials derive, at Loch na Fooey in County Galway, Ireland. From those profoundly rural depths he conjures his more personal work (from £150), his magnificent Pods and Pouches, his baskets grown onto pieces of ancient wood rescued from bogs, the sea or the fire, or made from catkins, bog myrtle or bark. His magisterial work took centre stage on the Crafts Council Ireland stand at London’s Collect craft fair at the Saatchi Gallery in London last May. His concern, as he describes it, with these sensual, highly individual objects is “to reawaken a sense of wonder, and I am not always certain during the making process exactly how the basket will turn out”. It is this approach to the craft that gives his works their un­mistakable energy.

Undoubtedly, part of the appeal of many baskets is the naturalness of the materials and a connection to the weather, soil and the rhythms of the seasons. For many makers, growing, selecting, cutting and then handling their own materials is as much part of the art-making as the weaving itself. Lise Bech, like Lizzie Farey, Caroline Dear and many other makers, is based in rural Scotland; Sarah Pank and Caroline Sharp, in the West Country. Bech’s swollen-bellied baskets (from £15), Farey’s magnificent giant willow balls (from £250) and Dear’s sculptural gatherings of twigs, hair moss, rushes and kelp (from £50) are all animated by their makers’ imaginative tie to a particular landscape.

Pank’s strong, tight baskets (from £95) and beautiful table pieces, and Sharp’s poetic, spiralling nests (from £100), are informed as much by nature’s patterns as by purely formal considerations. For other makers, however, it is the tension between the lingering rural connotations of basket-making and their own urban lifestyles that drives them. As Susie Thomson put it in the catalogue for Urban Field, a stimulating show of craft exploring the city and country divide shown at Contemporary Applied Arts in London in 2007: “Living in London and working with willow creates a dichotomy. The countryside is present as an inescapable background to my work. London is, however, a vibrant body that cannot be ignored.” Her own gracefully twisting baskets manage this tension beautifully.

For Lois Walpole, London also provides the material and inspires the colours for her pieces (from £200), as her display at Origin Intervention, with the brightly coloured, twisting Snake Basket, made from reused mixed materials, demonstrated. Other makers look further afield for inspiration. Anna King aligns her work with the ritual baskets of Native Americans, Polynesians and other Aboriginal peoples (from £200). Clusters of her delicate nest-like coiled structures decorated with feathers (from £250), down, felted wool and other found materials were on show with Craft Scotland at the Collect show at the Saatchi Gallery. The works evoke worlds of myth and magic as much as the utilitarian world of storing and transporting and are, as she puts it, “allowed to be whatever they want to be”.

With the idea of the vessel, as Butcher delicately puts it, “no longer the first priority”, baskets have become able to address many other exploratory themes. Dail Behennah, a geographer by training, uses her constructed, rather than woven, contemporary shapes to explore formal ideas about line, light and shadow (from £50). Her grids and scaffolds revel in the straightness of the stripped willow rods she uses, while framing the more random play of hawthorn and many other scavengings from the hedgerow and beyond.

Tim Johnson, an exuberant teacher, blogger, photographer, as well as basket-maker, based on the Isle of Wight, creates an array of captivating objects (from £30). Depending upon his current preoccupations, his work ranges from entire installations to fragile wall hangings, and from stubby sculptures to airy drawings with split bamboo.

Another progressive maker is the Japanese master Shouchiku Tanabe, the fourth generation of a family of famous bamboo artists, who is represented in this country by Katie Jones, and showed at the Collect exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery – alongside an exemplary traditional bamboo basket – some gorgeous plump coils of woven black and tiger bamboo, like exotic birds with their heads hidden under their wings (from £2,500). All that was left of basketry was metaphor – the idea of containment, of a protected within and a protecting without.

These, like so many of the other objects described above, have taken flight from basketry’s 20th-century obsession with the past, into a new world of pure function-free aesthetic pleasure.