M. L. from Santa Barbara mailed me two pictures of two baskets: a lidded one, which she believes was crafted by the Native Americans of the Northwest, according to family apocrypha. The other basket, however, really caught my interest because of its quiet subtlety, in natural coils, at about 7” wide, flaring, which her mother believed was an African drinking vessel. Her mother, however, expressed this belief 80-years ago as it sat on the family mantelpiece, and M. L. says it might be older than even the date of her mom’s remark to M. L. as a little girl. This basket, however, is NOT African. Both baskets are Northwest.
Thousands of years ago, Native Peoples created basketry as a form that crossed the borders between art and artifact. The “artificer” had in mind beauty, but she also had in mind utility: for food gathering and storage, to hold garments, fish, and ceremonial implements, to mention only few uses.
To carry heavy loads, burden baskets were woven sturdily and were worn on the back with a tumpline (a strap that passes over the forehead). Berry baskets were woven flexibly for bruisable fruit, so delicately worked that these baskets could be folded. Fish and shellfish baskets had open weaves for drainage and rinsing. In fact, shellfish could be steamed in tautly woven openwork baskets and a watertight water-filled basket was strong enough to receive hot coals to bring water to a boil. Imagine the skills, which were passed down over thousands of years, to create these simple wonders out of the local flora and fauna.
These baskets were made for the delight and use of the People, but during the late 19th and early 20th C., Native women marketed “trinket” baskets to tourists, creating new forms that were purely decorative. For example, Northwest weavers found detritus glass bottles washed up on shores and wove beautiful mat coverings around them for tourists. Today, Northwest Native American basketry is no longer viewed as ethnographic specimens or souvenir art: these baskets have entered the realm of ‘fine art’ in the Western meaning of ‘art’ and collectors pay a great deal for finds in this fine of condition.
Materials used in baskets such as M. L.’s (both are indeed Northwest) are maiden-hair fern stems, horsetail root, red cherry bark and many grasses, gathered during specific times of the year: Native weavers knew when materials were ripe for picking. Various materials needed to be boiled and line-dried for weeks. Gatherers needed to know when sap was running; if material was pulled from the bark of a tree, the removal was sparing and done in a respectful ‘twisting’ way, which did not harm the tree; if a root was needed, only one or two roots were taken.
The darker ‘elegant’ basket is Salish, late 19th C., in a style called ‘coiled and imbricated’, on natural ground. “Imbricated” means interlaced raised elements of triangulated shapes of woven material, with obvious overlapped edges. The imbricated design is subtle and effective in anchoring the flaring sides of the wide-open basket. The effect of the shining imbricated weave glistens like fish scales. The base of the basket forms a beautiful “finish” to the support, delicately forming a “foot.” The basket, in its form, simplicity and elegance, is indeed a work of art. The ‘exclamation point’ to its composition is the little raised button in the inside center of the bottom of the basket, emphasizing the roundness of the coils as they taper. The form is a gathering or work basket, worth $600-800.
The colorful lidded basket is also Northwest, but Skokomish, and also close to 100-years old; a different weave which is not coiled but “twined,” a classic example of plain twining. Vertical geometric design zones filled with red and green dyed material are called “fishnets,” dyed red with pigment from cranberries, nettle, hemlock bark, alder bark, alder wood or sea-urchin juice, and dyed green with pigment from copper oxide. The dyestuffs were also taken from the land, until the late 19th C when Aniline dyes introduced by Anglo traders were sold to the People: these Aniline colors were harsher in tone. This basket would sell at auction for $700.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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