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Once upon a time, and not that long ago, there was no plastic. For thousands of years of human history, if people wanted to carry something around, from babies to drinking water, they wove a basket. It took, and takes, skill, patience, and an eye for artistry to create a useful basket.
“I have been making baskets for 35 years,” says Lisa Kostelak of Colville, WA.
“I made my first basket in a craft store in a mall in Florida, when I was in just the right place at the right time.
“Though I had been interested in learning for a long time, it was hard to know where to start in the old, pre-Internet days.”
Today’s technology worship aside, one of the best ways to learn a craft that employs our hands, hearts, and brain is from an actual person who learned how to do it from another actual person. And it is for this reason that Kostelak, who taught herself painstakingly through books and a tremendous amount of trial and error, passes on what she knows through teaching small, personal classes. Basket Making 101, contrary to what we’ve been told all these years, is not an easy A.
“I learned to weave using rattan, which is a readily available material from Southeast Asia. It is lovely to work with, and I still use it to make many baskets.
“Over the years I have expanded, using material that I forage locally, including cedar bark, tules or rushes, birch bark, bear grass, red osier, even dandelion stems. I am always on the lookout for stuff to weave with.”
So it’s not just a matter of unpacking a cardboard box of materials and following a sheet of directions. For Kostelak, basket making involves a solid knowledge of plants and their environment, as well what to harvest, when and how, and what to do with it afterwards to prepare it for weaving. (Show of hands here: who in the room has even heard of “red osier” or “tules,” much less knows how to identify and gather them?)
“I forage anywhere — my backyard, where I’ve planted willow, juncus, red osier, to weave with. I also use my fruit tree pruning, among other garden plants.
“My tules, or rushes, I get from a friend’s pond. We have a nice visit, then cut rushes and load them into my van.”
For cedar, she gets permission from a private landowner to select a tree that is damaged and will need to be taken down. Once it is cut, she strips off the outer bark, then peels the inner bark or cambium layer, which she coils up and cures for a year before soaking and cutting it into strips for weaving. On hikes through the Colville National Forest, she looks for bear grass, birch bark from dead trees, scouring rush, and whatever else catches her eye.
“I always ask before harvesting live material,” Kostelak says, because an essential part of making baskets — by real, regular people throughout history — has been working with the environment, not against it. In today’s arena of industrial, profit-driven, multi-billion, even -trillion, dollar corporations, this respect for, and awareness of, sustainability is becoming as lost as the knowledge of making baskets.
“I love working in 3D, with shapes, textures, and colors, making something that is functional and beautiful,” Kostelak says. Her studio, she adds, was formerly known as the family room. With the kids grown and flown, she has commandeered the entire space, with foraged materials stashed everywhere.
“I love spending time there, with the music turned up as loud as it goes, just getting into the rhythm of the weave.”
Kostelak sells her work through area shops and regional craft shows, and her wares have found homes from Seattle to San Francisco, from New York to Florida, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand. There is no end to creative inspiration, she says, because the materials themselves are dynamic, redolent of life, tactile, and almost demanding to be touched, handled, interlinked and intertwined.
“I get new ideas while I work. Sometimes I get an idea from the colors or textures of material stored together. Sometimes I dream a basket, and write it down when I wake up.”
The skill, and the baskets, transcend time, and there is a rush (no pun intended) to creating something that artisans have been making for far, far longer than industry has churned out plastic bags and petro-chemical products. There’s a human touch that endures from one age to the next.
This is good to remember the next time we overhear someone scoffing that a class is as easy as Basket Making 101. We can be free to retort,
“Have you ever actually woven a basket? It’s not as easy as you think.”
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 5 p.m. from Monday through Friday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.
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.”
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!”
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.”
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 email@example.com. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment.
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