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

Film by Billy Ray Sims. Produced in conjunction with the exhibition "A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets" at the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum. "A Measure of the Earth" 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 105 baskets on display were made between 1983 and 2011 and demonstrate the endurance of indigenous, African, and European basket weaving traditions in the United States. The Cole-Ware collection presents an encyclopedic view of this medium, and is notable for the care with which samples were collected. The sixty-three weavers represented craft their baskets almost entirely from un-dyed native materials—grasses, trees, vines, and bark—that they have gathered. 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.

STEPHEN ZEH: When I go out in the woods to find a basket tree, I’m looking for a brown ash tree. Sometimes in the summer months I might cut the tree, and if it’s not too big, I put it on my shoulder and carry it out. I’ve been making baskets about 35 years.

LYNETTE YOUSON: When we pull, we put our foot on the root. That way the root would stay in the ground and we just pull the grass out itself. It’s both my mom’s side and my dad’s side that do sweetgrass basket weaving.

ANNE MCCAULEY: I never took lessons or had any experience basketmaking, I just came upon it on my own. I started making little circles, one bigger than the other, and then one of the circles turned into a coil quite by accident. And that’s what gave me the idea to use a coil. It’s still the same pattern that I use today.

JO CAMPBELL-AMSLER: Cultured willow has been selected through the centuries because of its quality of growing long and lean, being limber, being a strong material. So now I pretty much use all the cultured willow. I can plant the willow. I can do all the processing myself.

JENNIFER HELLER ZURICK: I’m looking for a tree that’s about a foot in diameter with a long straight trunk without a lot of knots or branches. That way I get a nice clean run of bark way up into the top of the tree. We’ll spend the rest of the day peeling the outer bark from the inner bark. It makes me work for it.

CYNTHIA TAYLOR: The trees around us and the smell of the woods and that beautiful forest, it’s just a deep part of what it’s all about.

AARON YAKIM: You find a nice stand of white oaks where they’re growing thickly together, so that they’re fighting each other for sunlight, so they go up quickly, and they have very few branches or knots.

SZ: When I pound the log, it comes apart in layers, year by year, layer by layer. It’s almost like going back in time through the tree. You get to really see and understand the structure of the wood, how the tree grew. It’s fascinating to take something like that and to make material that you can weave a basket with.

I don’t usually count hours. It’s days and weeks in working and making a basket. I don’t know if I’m ever satisfied with the work that I do. I’m always striving for a certain line, a certain construction of the basket. There’s always something I’m trying for.

LY: This is an art that was passed down from generation to generation. My great-grandmother actually taught me this art when I was a little girl. They went over to Sierra Leone with their ships, captured and enslaved, and when they got back to Charleston, they sold my ancestors to the masters at the Boone Hall Plantation. They didn’t have a choice but to make their own working baskets.

To me, it’s something that pulled the family together because this is one of the ways I spent a lot of time with my mom and my great grandma. I put a lot of love into it. If I make a piece and I don’t feel that it’s right, I’ll take it out. I’ll take it out 10, 15 times until I’m satisfied. For the younger generation to continue the art, that’s my hope.

AM: This was the second little basket I made. I was so proud of that little basket. I remember just looking at it and looking at it. But that’s the same coil that I use in my baskets still. I make the coil ahead of time, and when it’s all complete, I just take a separate strand and start the center of the bottom and bind it together. I shape them as I go along. I have some baskets that have sculptural vine-type parts on them. And that definitely is from me.

When you’re in the woods, you see all these neat twists and curves of vines. And I think it’s just great. When you make a basket, your thoughts go into the basket. I’ve seen that in mine. I mean, I didn’t even realize it. Just recently actually I was looking at my baskets and said, “Oh my goodness, that’s how I feel inside, what I’ve created.”

JC: I like a basket that will stand the test of time. In 100 years, after the basket is gone, I want that basket to be just as nice, if it’s been taken care of, as the day it was finished. So I think strength of character is what I look for in baskets. I love the weaving. There is that part of the challenge of design and setting the structure up and getting the ribs just right. But once you get that done, then I always think of it as the meditation process because the weaving, what I do, is just the over and under, back and forth. When I’m in a good space, when life’s on an even keel, I can see that in my baskets.

I do some more sculptural, not so much functional, baskets, and that definitely comes from my surroundings. What I think of in my baskets is that connection to people in the past, those people who sat on the riverbank or were making treks across the country and needed a basket.

JZ: I take a razor knife and cut it into my strips. I know what I’m going to weave. I’ve already got that in mind. To get a good form that holds up, the spokes need to be right next to each other and so do the weavers. So I’m always pulling those and pulling tension. And then with my twining, to get a good tight twine, I’m always putting tension on that.

The finer I went, the more the character and the spirit of the willow was released. It was revealing itself to me. Once I caught onto that, it was like, “Oh well, this is what this willow will do. Then let me go in that direction. Let it show me what it’s capable of.” It’s like they’re alive, like they’re breathing. They have a living essence to them.

CT: It’s a halving process. Split the log in half, and then the half in half, and into a quarter, until you get a small wedge-shaped piece. You’re moving from using the axes and wedges to using a froe. Eventually you use your pocketknife. So, when you get down to the finishing splitting, you’re literally pulling apart rings of the tree.

AY: It’s not a matter of developing a new curve or a new shape. It’s to take the traditional shape and do it the best as you possibly can.

CT: When it comes together, it takes on a life of its own. And I can set that basket up and look at it, and it just brings the mountain back in my heart. And I can feel the dedication of all the makers before me. I feel like I’ve given that tree tribute.

SZ: I’ve learned many things through years of working, but I don’t think it really gets any easier. To keep up quality really takes a lot of commitment, concentration, and hard work.

LY: As long as I’m alive, I will weave if the Lord permits.

AM: Oh, I’ll always make them. You can easily go inward, and you feel like you’re in the right place.

CT: You just can’t get in a hurry. There’s no need to rush through life. And that’s the way it is with making a white oak basket. It takes a long time.

JC: Baskets have held everything from eggs to newborn babies. How could there be anything better than that?

JH: I could feel proud to be a craft artist. Yeah, I’m a craft artist, and that’s good. And that’s a life. That’s a good life. It’s a good life.