The Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, presents Plain and Fancy: Native American Splint Baskets, an exhibition of baskets spanning two centuries. The art of ash splint basketry is a beautiful synthesis of form and function. The exhibition opens Saturday, August 10, and runs through December 29, 2013.
The exhibition includes over 30 baskets from the 1800s to the present day. Ash splint basketry ranges in form and decoration from practical storage and market baskets to fanciful and exquisitely designed artworks. Basket makers incorporate numerous design elements, such as a variety of weaves: checker, wicker, twill, and hexagonal plaiting. Artists also use sweetgrass and curled splints to embellish their baskets. Other design elements include dyes, stains, and paint. Domes, triangles, dots, or leaves are hand-painted or stamped with a carved potato, turnip, cork, or piece of wood.
The diversity of shapes and sizes produce unique and purposeful artwork that function as both decorative and utilitarian objects used in day-to-day life. Recent baskets include some that mimic a pineapple, strawberry, and ears of corn.
The production of ash splint basketry was popular among Native peoples in the mid-18th century, gaining significant momentum in the 19th. Basket makers sold their wares door to door and through trade catalogues, as well as at shops, markets, and trading posts frequented by tourists and travelers. In the later part of the 19th century, the Victorian fondness for elaboration encouraged makers to embellish their baskets with elegant handles, decorative weaves, dyed splints, and sweetgrass.
Native men and women collaborate in preparing splints from ash trees, and there are both male and female basket artists. Methods employed today are very similar to those practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries. Where basketry was once learned predominantly in the home, Native communities now teach the techniques in schools and at tribal museums and community centers to ensure that the art form continues.
The circulation of objects and materials through trade, travel, and tourism were instrumental in establishing ash splint basketry as a source of income, but global trade has now introduced a threat to ash trees and the art form itself: the emerald ash borer. The beetle was accidentally imported from Eastern Asia in the late 1990s, possibly in cargo pallets. It has killed at least 50 to 100 million ash trees so far and threatens to kill most of the 7.5 billion ash trees throughout North America. Eradication of the beetle is not considered feasible, but quarantines on the movement of ash wood should slow the spread of the beetle.
The Fenimore Art Museum thanks the Ralph T. Coe Foundation for the Arts, Santa Fe, N.M., for lending baskets from its collection and making this exhibition possible.
The exhibition Plain and Fancy: Native American Splint Baskets is on view at the Fenimore Art Museum, 5798 Route 80 in Cooperstown, NY. For more information about the museum, hours and admission, please visit FenimoreArtMuseum.org.
Photo: Round “Porcupine” ash splint and sweetgrass basket with Cover, c. 1990 by Sylvia Gabriel, (1930-2003), Passamaquoddy, Maine.