A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets

Media - 2011.47.38 - SAAM-2011.47.38_3 - 88797

Richard Krupa, Old Fashioned Egg Basket, 1987, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Martha G. Ware and Steven R. Cole

A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets explores the revival of traditional basketry in America during the past fifty years through works by sixty-three contemporary basketmakers. Made between 1983 and 2011, the 105 baskets on display demonstrate the endurance of indigenous, African, and European basket-weaving traditions in the United States as well as interpretations of the craft by individual makers. The basketmakers represented in the exhibition work almost exclusively with undyed native materials — grasses, trees, vines and bark — that they have gathered by hand. Many cite gathering and preparing materials as steps that are as important to their process as weaving and acts that connect their finished products to the surrounding environment.


This exhibition celebrates the generous gift of seventy-nine baskets to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the noted collectors Steven R. Cole and Martha G. Ware, and the promised gift of twenty more. The gift more than doubles the museum’s collection of contemporary baskets, making it one of the leading public collections of this craft. The Cole-Ware collection presents an encyclopedic view of this medium, and is notable for the care with which samples were collected. Nearly all of the works in the exhibition were purchased by the collectors directly from the artists, and were on public display for the first time at the Renwick Gallery. The forms—from baskets for eggs, harvest, and market to those for sewing, laundry, and fishing creels—reveal the central role basketry has played in the everyday life of Americans. Nicholas R. Bell, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator of American Craft and Decorative Art, organized the exhibition.

Visiting Information

October 3, 2013 December 8, 2013
Open Daily, 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m
Free Admission


A Measure of the Earth
A Measure of the Earth provides an window into the traditional basketry revival of the past fifty years. Nicholas Bell’s essay details the longstanding use of traditional fibers, such as black ash, white oak, willow, and sweetgrass and the perseverance of a select few to harvest these elements—the land itself—for the enrichment of daily life. Drawing on conversations with basketmakers from across the country and reproducing many of their documentary photographs, Bell offers an intimate glimpse of their lifeways, motivations, and hopes. Lavish illustrations of every basket in the exhibition convey the humble, tactile beauty of these functional vessels.



A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets is organized by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The James Renwick Alliance and Margot Heckman generously support the exhibition. Additional support for the accompanying exhibition film was provided by the National Basketry Organization and Wonder Laboratories.

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