Our family just returned from a two week trip to my brother-in-law's cabin in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. I took my own advice about finding a way to include basketry into summer vacation plans. I made absolutely certain that our plans included basketry.
While the rest of the family was fishing, swimming, boating, napping or reading I spent a good deal of time making baskets and gathering and preparing natural materials for basketry. I spent time gathering, debarking and splitting spruce root from his yard which I will use for stitching bark containers. I also tried my hand at preparing a few stems of Bracken fern. This process crushes the fern stem and removes the outer fleshy portion of the stem, reserving the core fibers. It is remarkable that these fibers are strong enough to be used for basketry. The piece I eventually include the fibers in will have to be small though because the process is so time intensive I didn't produce much quantity.
The shoreline of Raquette Lake provided the perfect environment for a tall grass (probably a sedge, not sweetgrass). I collected a small quantity, being certain not to collect more than environmentally responsible. I sorted and dried it for later use in twining, braiding or as rims. I collected this plant material on private land with the permission of the owner. Be certain to contact your local Department of Environmental Protection or Forester for information about permits required before collecting any native vegetation.
We spent one whole day at The Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. The museum portrays the cultural history of people who lived in and visited the Adirondacks from the 1800s to the mid-1900s.
There were baskets throughout the museum both vintage and newly created. There were fishing creels, open rectangular ash storage baskets, stitched birch bark containers, pack baskets, potato stamp decorated covered storage baskets, wicker trunks and luggage, snowshoes, splint charcoal baskets, even a wicker casket in an elaborate shiny black horse-drawn hearse. The proliferation of baskets throughout the exhibits demonstrated the ways basketry was an integral part of daily life during this period.
The Woods and Waters: Outdoor Recreation in the Adirondacks exhibit focuses on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century recreation experiences, as well as the task of surveying the Adirondack region. One diorama explains the development of the Adirondack pack basket, precursor of modern backpacks. The display includes crooked knives, splint slitter, a splint plane and the component parts of the pack basket. There were three pack baskets and a selection of provisions that you could try on to imagine what it would have been like to hike with the pack filled with the items you would need for the trip. The children seemed to get a big kick out of this display.
Another exhibit "Adirondack Faces" features a selection of photographs capturing the men and women living in the Adirondacks in the late twentieth century in settings revealing their skills, trades and interests. Bill Smith, basketmaker and story teller is included in this exhibit. Bill regularly teaches summer basketry workshops at Sagamore Institute historic Adirondack great camp, another of the museums in the area.
The baskets I found most awe inspiring were new ones commissioned by the museum to be made by Florence Katsitsienhawi Benedict, an Akwesasne Mohawk. As part of the "Peopling the Adirondacks" exhibit, a short term exhibit documenting the ethnicity in the Adirondacks, Florence has created a series of Black Ash woodsplint and sweetgrass globe baskets. These large and impressive baskets are bigger than basketballs and are woven with black ash woodsplint spokes and ash or sweetgrass weavers. Each piece is filled with symbolism. One basket titled The Hair of Mother Earth represented the importance which sweetgrass played in the lives of the community. Another globe is embellished with a multitude of miniature round sweetgrass baskets paying homage to the importance of the gourd in their culture. The most recent piece is impressively displayed in the main atrium. This piece, with a theme of world peace, is woven with braided sweetgrass weavers over ash spokes and is stunningly accented with purple curl embellishment at the equator and three purple rings at the pole. Each basket took months to create, including many hours to braid the sweetgrass. The display features enlarged photos of Florence and other members of her family surrounded by the tools and supplies of the work they do.
Of course you can't get out of a museum without doing some browsing in the gift shop. There was a shelf of basketry books and basketry related gifts including birch bark containers, reed or ash pack baskets, gold and silver basket charms and precious metal baskets by Pat and Butch Bramhall of Stonehouse Silversmiths.
If you want to look deeper into the history of basketry in this region The Adirondack Museum collections are available for research purposes by appointment and the library is open to researchers, without charge, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. throughout the year. I recommend that you visit the next time you are in that area, or better yet plan your next summer vacation around a visit to it.
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