Art & Design Magazine

Four Questions: Curator Nicholas Bell Discusses A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets

By Americanart

Debrah Dunner, curatorial assistant at our Renwick Gallery, interviewed Nicholas Bell, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator of American Craft and Decorative Art, about A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets at the Renwick Gallery through December 8, 2013.


JoAnne Russo's Acorn Basket, #74

Eye Level: How did the idea form for mounting a show about baskets?

Nicholas Bell: Collector Steve Cole called out of the blue one day in 2010 and said, "Would you like to see my baskets?" In truth, I didn't pay him too much attention at first. I confess that I didn't give a lot of weight to the idea of a basket collection and it wasn't until he persisted with photos of his collection that I really sat up and took notice. We arranged a visit to the home in Arlington, Virginia where Steve and his wife Martha Cole live. And I knew within minutes of entering his kitchen that I was staring at an exhibition in waiting. Each space was filled with baskets, wondrous vessels of all sorts, each designed to perform its own function. There were bushels for apples and potato baskets, and laundry baskets. Baskets for eggs, feathers, for the wall and for table. It was as if I had entered a private souk.

EL: How has your view on traditional American baskets changed since you first started researching for the exhibition?

NB: I knew very little about baskets when I made that visit. I could see an extraordinary range of materials and functions and intense attention paid to design and execution. Even without an education in the field to fall back on, I could tell there was something very special here. Since they made their first basket purchase at a shop in Louisville, Kentucky in 1986, Steve and Martha have labored tirelessly to seek out the most humble of basket makers around the United States, and to build what is surely the most comprehensive collection in the country documenting the traditional American basket revival of the past half century. In the process, they became incredibly knowledgeable about this fledgling craft. By reaching out to individuals everywhere they have become the connective tissue for a field scattered far and wide. And so they provided my first answers in understanding what I was dealing with, and how to tease out the broader narrative beyond the chaos of materials I first confronted. Over the next several months I spoke to the majority of the surviving basket makers included in the collection —dozens of people at the frontline of the revival. Through those dialogues I came to understand the enormity of what they had accomplished and also its underlying fragility.

EL: Why did you choose to bring the entire Cole-Ware collection into the Renwick's permanent collection? How do you think the museum will benefit from this acquisition?

NB: Of the more than 100 baskets in the Cole-Ware collection 79 have already been donated to the Smithsonian. An additional 20 are scheduled to arrive later as a bequest. We were overjoyed that Steve and Martha were not only willing but eager to share the wealth of their decades of collecting with us in this fashion. There are many basket collections at the Smithsonian: older baskets are at the National Museum of American History; international examples are at the National Museum of Natural History; Native American baskets are at the National Museum of the American Indian; and the Renwick already has a strong collection of contemporary studio baskets. But the Smithsonian lacked a record of the basketry revival that has done so much to keep specific regional craft traditions alive. This is precisely what we should have, so it is remarkable that we were able to gain it all at once through the dedication of a couple that built it through passion and decades of quiet determination. Bringing the collection to the Renwick means the story of this revival is no longer in the shadows. We are delighted to be able to share it with the country at large, and to celebrate the ingenuity of this cohort in bringing our attention back to the value of basketry.

EL: Do you think baskets, as a medium, will endure through the next generations? What are some of the challenges the craft faces?

NB: This is a tough call. The traditional basket revival really began as a means of individual empowerment and fulfillment at a time when many felt the country was on the wrong track. This collection is populated overwhelmingly by baby boomers who were drawn to the craft in the 1960s and 1970s and its promise of a different way of life. Unfortunately the passion for basket making does not appear to have clearly transferred to younger generations. Of the 63 makers in this collection, only one outside of South Carolina's Gullah tradition is under the age of 50: Jamin Uticone (who was also feature in last year's anniversary exhibition, 40 under 40: Craft Futures).

Many of the basket makers offer workshops and teach, both to make a living and in the hopes of expanding the community of makers. But there is not strong evidence that a new wave of young basket makers is ready to take up the reigns of the movement as older makers begin to face retirement. It is unclear how the revival will continue over the next decade or two. There are other significant environmental challenges confronting the craft.

In South Carolina the coastal habitat for sweetgrass, the primary material for Gullah baskets, has been severely diminished through residential development and other factors. It is getting harder and harder for the families that make up the tradition to find enough grass to make their baskets. But the most sobering element is further north. Since 2002 the emerald ash borer, a beetle originally from Asia, has been decimating ash forests across North America. It now appears likely that the infestation will wipe out all ash species, putting a definite end to New England's centuries-long tradition of black and white ash basketry. There are things that can be done to slow the spread of the ash borer. But it will take time.

View a slide show of selected works in the exhibition A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Basket at the Renwick until December 8, 2013.

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