Leon and Sharon Niehues | Eburna
Leon and Sharon Niehues

born 1951
Resides in Huntsville, Arkansas

Biography            Statement            Ask the Artist
Sharon and Leon Niehues have been full time studio artists since 1981. They received an Arkansas Arts Council Fellowship Grant in 1992. They've won numerous awards for their work, including First Place in the St. Louis Art Fair of 1994 and the (Arkansas) Governor's Award in 1990. The Chicago Tribune of February 2nd, 1986 discussed their work in an article called "Look What's Happened to the Basket." Their work is represented in the collections of the Hot Springs Art Museum, Arkansas and the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock.


Statement

Leon Niehues

Form is my main focus: a reinterpretation of classical and traditional forms. Decorative elements are incorporated into the construction, dictated by the form, and simple in approach. Some forms contain sculptural features, but I don't allow this to subtract from the basket as vessel and container. I use the resources around me: native white oak logs for splint materials and runners from the coralberry bush for trim and detail.

Sharon Niehues

I have been interested in working with fiber since I was a very small child. Artistry, particularly form and color and texture, has always satisfied something deep within me, a striving for something above and more beautiful than the meals and minutiae of daily living. We have melded the strength and flexibility of white oak with the grace and dignity of classic forms, using overlay and color contrast to create fluid lines of movement in the surface design.


Ask the Artist

Leon Niehues

Where do you get the ideas for your work?

I try to keep my eyes open all the time and notice what's around me. I especially like nature and the appearance of simplicity on the surface. Good ideas can come from cars, houses, and appliances that have a good sense of design. Other craft media are important. Lately I've been looking through books on architecture and thinking about constructions that might apply to my work.

Do you work alone on your craft, or with others?

For many years I worked with my wife Sharon. Now I work alone. My son Matthew works with me one day per week during the school year and more during the summer.

Do you ever teach, or take on apprentices?

I do teach, about once or twice a year for an organization or craft school. I've never taken an apprentice.

What's the most exciting part of creating your works?

I especially enjoy the accomplishment of weaving a great form, because everything is built on it and around it.

What's the most difficult part of creating your works?

Probably the most difficult part of making my baskets is producing the splint materials. Most all the splint I use is cut, split, carved, or sawed from fresh white oak logs. It's labor intensive.

What sort of technology do you use in your work? Has the technology of your craft changed dramatically over the past 100 years?

The technology of my craft has changed little in the past 100 years. Most of my tools are home-made and consist of knives and splitting tools. I have added a large bandsaw, drill, and chainsaw.

Do you have any advice for somebody just starting out?

I would suggest that the beginning craftsperson begin with a solid foundation in technique and good craftsmanship. Simple techniques that can be built upon are best. It will serve the craftsman throughout his or her career. Also, I've learned to separate my work into categories. I guarantee an income by repeating some work, keeping it less complicated, smaller in scale, and less in selling price. When one repeats ideas early in his career, he will learn technique and craftsmanship through repetition, repetition, repetition. The rest of my time I give to pushing the limits of my materials and myself. These pieces are usually larger in scale, more time consuming, more complicated, and more expensive. I feel this is good advice to anyone who is starting out and needs to make a living while exploring new territory.Whenever possible I think it's good advice to use materials that are from one's surroundings.

Develop a good relationship with your bank. There will probably be times when you need credit and financing. And keep a visual record of early work. A time will probably come when you will want to show others your beginning, and remind yourself.

Can you share a "secret of the trade" with us--something nobody else knows or that you found out only after years of experience? Put another way--what do you wish somebody had told you when you were just starting out that might have saved you hours of wasted effort?

I can't think of anything!

What are we missing by experiencing your work through the Internet and not seeing/hearing/feeling/smelling/touching it in person?

By not viewing this basket in person, you will miss the experience of walking around it - seeing it's shape change from front to back. You would probably miss the play with texture; smooth and woven. This basket is made of white oak wood and does have a distinct smell. There is something about being physically in the same room with an object and the space it occupies. You will not be able to pick it up and feel it's weight, and surface tension. Most of all one would miss not being able to see inside.

Sharon Niehues

Where do you get the ideas for your work?

Sometimes the best ideas are the oldest ones. It is hard to improve on the classic lines and beautiful symmetry of ancient vessel forms. Much of the shaping in the baskets is reinterpreted from ancient Greek, Babylonian, Asian and Nigerian pot forms.

My fascination with geometric forms and contrast of light and dark has been used in the surface embellishment of the baskets. Leon and I have found that vertical lines of light or dark added to the surface of a round basket accentuate the roundness of the form and create greater visual interest. This is also structurally very sound because the external pieces actually mimic (are virtual clones) of the original ribs around which the basket is woven. Thus, in most cases, we work with the natural tendencies of the materials, rather than forcing an extreme or unnatural shape.

Do you work alone on your craft, or with others?

White oak basketmaking is traditionally a team effort - often, as in our case, a husband and wife team. Splitting and shaping the materials from the log requires skill and strength. Leon's expertise in making materials is not excelled by any white oak basketmaker I know of. Good materials are the foundation for good work. I have usually done the weaving and shaping of the baskets, although this must be carefully coordinated to the materials, so that the finished basket is a well-coordinated product of materials, weaving and design. We have usually collaborated on design and together have hashed out the technical difficulties of new ideas. The finishing work of carving and finishing handles, rim treatments and surface embellishments is again Leon's work, with assistance from our three children - Ruth, Matthew and Evan.

Do you ever teach, or take on apprentices?

Apprentices - No. Unless you count our two sons who are currently working regularly with their Dad, since I've turned my attention to some other projects of my own.

Teaching - Yes. In connection with basketry conferences and symposiums, and occasionally with the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.

What's the most exciting part of creating your works?

The ideas. I get excited about new ideas and new ways to use them. And I actually like the repetitive motions of the weaving itself. It can be very meditative.

What's the most difficult part of creating your works?

Not having the strength or time to do as much as I would like to. I don't really mind the frustration of taking things apart and doing it over until it's right. If it comes out right, that's what matters. Wrestling with the material when it's stubborn about taking proper form is sometimes part of that. Cutting weavers all morning isn't much fun, either.

Do you have any advice for somebody just starting out?

Be prepared to dedicate yourself to your work if you truly want to see results. Nothing substitutes for learning by doing -over and over again. Learn technique from those who have experience and knowledge, but never copycat. See everything you can and think about everything you see. Good ideas and good designs cross over from one medium to another. Art is everywhere. Use all your senses to experience it. Find that which speaks to your heart and make it part of your work. Don't be afraid to try new things, but be selective about what you repeat. Get input from people who are knowledgeable and whom you respect, but make your own decisions.

Can you share a "secret of the trade" with us--something nobody else knows or that you found out only after years of experience? Put another way--what do you wish somebody had told you when you were just starting out that might have saved you hours of wasted effort?

I don't think I know any.

What are we missing by experiencing your work through the Internet and not seeing/hearing/feeling/smelling/touching it in person?

The tactile experience. These baskets feel as wonderful as they look. They are make of wood and they smell like wood. They have weight and substance. The hundreds of pieces of which these baskets are made are held together by controlled tension. It is one solid piece, and yet many pieces. The pieces move, yet they are stable. The multitude becomes one.


Joel Philip Myers Laney Oxman