Turning Rope into Art
Humans innovate, figuring out creative ways to solve problems. For example, consider the difficulty of capturing and restraining a full grown steer.
While this is not something the desk worker worries about, cowboys on ranches did, and they developed a technique, called team roping, which eventually segued into a popular rodeo event.
“Team roping involves two people on horses, a header and a heeler,” explains Nancy Waldron, a Colfax artist who is also a lifetime team roper. “The header catches the horns of a steer and takes one or two dallies around his saddle horn. He then rides to the left so the heeler can rope both hind legs and dally his rope around the saddle horn.”
The whole process is fast (a professional team takes between four and eight seconds) and exciting, but for Waldron, it doesn’t stop there. She gets really, really excited about another element of the sport:
“I make rope baskets from old team roping ropes,” Waldron explains. “A lot of old ropes get tossed or just piled in a barn, so I am recycling and repurposing material that often would end up in a landfill. Each basket is one complete and continuous rope. Each is free formed and hand crafted — I don’t use any molds.”
New Baskets from Old Ropes
Waldron started making the baskets 10 years ago, after seeing them in catalogs. Her first thought was one that many people have when they encounter artisan craft work:
“I figured I could make my own. Being a team roper, I had more than a few old ropes lying around.
“Well, I was wrong. I had no clue how to make them. My first attempt was horrible, but I kept at it, and now am proud of the products I turn out.” Those products are both decorative and utilitarian, ranging from planters and flower pots to kitchen utensil holders, from egg collecting baskets to ones for holding kindling, and, the largest basket yet — consisting of four ropes — a pet basket. (By the way, the ropes are 30-35 feet in length.)
From the beginning, Waldron determined to forego shortcuts, choosing not to glue but rather melt the nylon layers together using a soldering iron. Working with a hot tip has its moments — generally short — when something other than the rope gets burned.
“I have burned myself many times,” Waldron says. “One time when I was a guest speaker giving a presentation of my baskets I was asked, ‘What does the tip look like that you use?’ I was able to show the questioner a fresh burn that was exactly shaped like the hot tip. The audience all laughed, but I sure didn’t when it happened!”
Made to Be Coiled
One of the questions Waldron most frequently encounters is whether she makes square or rectangular baskets. And the answer to that is, no.
“Think about it: try coiling your garden hose in a square and see how well that works out. Ropes are coiled and are not made to be bent: they fight you the whole way.” This trait increases the challenge of shaping the final product, especially when the rope Waldron starts with is very old. Several times, people have given her ropes from their grandpa’s days. And while these ropes are unique and vintage, they were probably also used to break a horse to tie, meaning that the rope has been wrapped many times around a standing railroad tie. So, in addition to kinks is the pungent aroma of creosote.
It’s all part of the challenge.
Waldron markets her rope baskets at regional gift shops, and also attends fairs and festivals throughout Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. A chance meeting at the Pendleton Round-Up resulted in Waldron selling her wares through Woods Trading Company from Missouri, which sets up at larger rodeos and horse events throughout the U.S. Through this contact, Waldron achieved her dream to get her wares to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas:
“I pretty much had no life except making baskets between September and December. But I was thrilled they made it to the NFR.”
Never a City Girl
Born and raised in Portland but never a city girl, Waldron raised her children in Pomeroy, WA, while also farming, raising and showing cattle and sheep, breeding and training Border Collies, and, of course, team roping. Often, she says, both work and play were done with rope from the saddle of a horse, and it’s only fitting that those ropes transform into an item that is both utilitarian and artistic.
“Part of my design and trademark is ending some of my baskets with a loop around the outside, almost as if the loop and hondo are catching the basket, completing the lasso image.
“My baskets are functional, but I try to maintain the authentic concept that a rope is intended to catch something.”
Nancy Waldron is the Featured Art Event from Monday, November 4, through Saturday, November 30 at Wenaha Gallery. She will be at the gallery for the Christmas Kickoff Art Show Friday, November 29, from 2 to 6 p.m. Waldron will be joined by Walla Walla photographer Nancy Richter.
Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment.