“Basketry as art is our main focus” Joanne Segal Brandford
At the NBO Conference in August, keynote speaker Lissa Hunter encouraged the NBO community — locally, nationally, individually — to create exhibits and publications that document our history. The contemporary basketry field is very young, a post World War II development that has not been communicated in a broad way. Lissa cited The Basketmaker’s Art (1989) featuring 26 outstanding artists who were leaders of the fiber movement. Of the group, five have died : Ed Rossbach, Lillian Elliott, Joanne Segal Brandford, Doug Fuchs and Shereen LaPlantz. As a friend of Joanne’s from the 1970s to 1990s, I volunteered to write an article about her remarkable career as an artist, scholar, and teacher because her work and words are relevant today. You will hear Joanne’s voice as I include excerpts from her publications and our correspondence.
Ed Rossbach published Baskets as Textile Art (1973) when the concept of “baskets as art” was a revolutionary idea! The term “fiber art” was introduced to acknowledge new art forms. In The New Basketry (1976), Rossbach described the trend of weavers becoming basket makers. As weavers were introduced to traditional basket materials, they adopted the new materials; as weavers discovered ancient pre-industrial techniques, they were liberated to experiment with off-loom techniques. Individual artists began a movement that would be sustained by galleries, patrons and hundreds of basketmakers.
Joanne studied Decorative Arts (BA 1955) and Design (MA 1967) at the University of California, Berkeley. Her studies included costume and textile history, anthropology and textile analysis; in the studio she experimented with weaving, ikat and silk-screen. Her work was selected for the traveling show “The Dyer’s Art: Ikat, Batik, Plangi” (Museum of Contemporary Crafts, NY, 1976).
Moving to Cambridge, 1969-1977, Joanne pursued art and scholarship. She taught textile printing, costume and textile history at Mass College of Art; Textile Traditions of Native America at Radcliffe Seminars; Textile History at Rhode Island School of Design; and she was named a Research Fellow in Textile Art at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, Harvard University. A sampling of her lecture and publication topics included silk weavings of Northeast Thailand, Iron Age textile fragments from Yugoslavia, North American baskets, nets and Saltillo serapes.
At the Cambridge Adult Education Center, Joanne was my first textile history teacher and changed my life. I was passionate about textiles and needed direction. My experience included a degree in Art History from Cornell University (where I learned to weave), weaving workshops at Haystack (Assistant to Theo Moorman) and a project as Educational Consultant for TOIKA looms in Finland. Joanne arranged for me to volunteer with textile collections at the Peabody Museum. Soon thereafter my museum career began at the Department of Textiles, Museum of Fine Arts. Eventually I gave up my looms to study baskets.
Joanne was curator for “The North American Basket 1790-1976” at the Craft Center in Worcester. In the catalog Joanne simply states: “Basketry as art is our main…….” She enthusiastically describes diversity within traditions of Native America and Old World immigrants, and eclecticism amongst contemporary artists. In one paragraph, Joanne intuitively responds to the expressive nature of the baskets; one can only wonder if she is describing Native American, Old World, or contemporary baskets:
Here baskets are gigantic, minuscule, soft, stiff, globular, flat, cylindrical, sturdy, delicate, dense, lace like, sparkling, matte, slim, voluptuous, slick, shaggy, stolid, soaring, squat, buoyant…and more…..
In the catalog Joanne also presents themes that communicate the University of California educational philosophy: baskets are complex objects beyond their techniques. Baskets are essential crafts rooted in communities where there were collective standards technically and aesthetically. Although made by anonymous artists, baskets communicate social or spiritual value within a community. Baskets have historical and ethnographic importance beyond function. Furthermore, baskets reflect complex social and trade relationships that were local, regional and national. In other words, tradition in baskets is not static!
Joanne lived in Ithaca, NY, 1977-85. In 1980 she was Artist in Residence at Fiberworks, Berkeley, CA. She continued to have one foot in the studio and one foot in the museum! There were four important scholarly projects: curator for “Our Shining Heritage: Textile Art of the Slavs and their Neighbors,” an exhibition of 180 textiles and costumes at the Roberson Art Center, Binghamton, NY, 1980-81; curator for the exhibition/catalog “From the tree where the bark grows – North American Basket Treasures from the Peabody Museum, Harvard University,” 1981-84; Research Associate for Cornell Costume Collection, 1982-84; and Visiting Specialist to catalog 400 baskets at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, 1984.
For the catalog/exhibit “From the tree where the bark grows – North American Basket Treasures for the Peabody Museum, Harvard University” (1984), Joanne selected 61 baskets from a collection of nearly 3000 specimens. The exhibit title is taken from Daniel Gookin’s observations on the beauty, diversity and utility of native baskets, as published in “Historical Collections of the Indians in New England” (1674):
From the tree where the bark grows, they made several sorts of baskets, great and small….In their baskets they put their provisions. Some…are made of rushes: some, of bents: others of maize husks: others of a kind of wild hemp; and some of barks of trees: many of them, very neat and artificial [meaning skillful or artful], with the portraitures of birds, beasts, fishes, and flowers upon them in colours….The baskets….are always made by their women.
Joanne was especially honored to be Basketmaker-in-Residence at the Manchester Polytechnic, England, 1986/87. England’s basket tradition was apprenticeship with agrarian or industrial roots; basketry studies in school dated to the last quarter of the 20th century. Author Merrell Holberton, in Contemporary International Basketmaking (1999), acknowledges the start of the new basketry in North American, led by Ed Rossbach. She mentions influential American artists including Joanne (“softly formed, netted images of baskets”), Lillian Elliott, Pat Hickman, John Garrett, and Lissa Hunter. Here are excerpts from our correspondence about Joanne’s experience in England, her first experience living abroad:
…….The school is quite interesting as is the entire context of “crafts” in England. So very different from US….The emphasis at the school is embroidery, a really serious field for these people. The history of English needlework seems to be unique, as background to the activities of my colleagues here. I’ve been reading and pouring over the literature on it, but it’s too much for me me to comprehend, what with learning the English coins and carefully crossing streets the “right” way!
…….There is a show of my work planned here, at an extremely fashionable art gallery in town. It will be very important for my colleagues at school, for this to be a good, triumphant, classy show. For them it means a certain rise in status within the school. I feel somewhat pressured, quite naturally! I’ve begun to consider the magnificent knitting and embroidery machines. Maybe they can help. I think I’ll take a look tomorrow….Well, to the sounds of the BBC 4th program I’ll sign off……PS English humor is marvelous! So tongue-in-cheek. Remarkable, really!
Joanne wrote the following Artist Statement in January 1989 for a solo show at the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum. She described the evolution of her work with nets and more about her experience in England :
ABOUT THE NETS
Intrigued by their structural variety and the ways they can create and mediate space, I made my first nets about twenty years ago. I studied traditional nets such as laces and other looped structures, and was deeply inspired by the netted works of my colleagues and students.
Working with suspended nets encouraged my interest in space and light. I have used nearly transparent materials to explore these ideas and some of my nets have teetered on the edge of invisibility. In 1987 I completed a cloud-like net which is as large as a room. I’d like to make several more and hang them together, weightless, evanescent and subtly luminous.
ABOUT THE BASKETS
Thinking about them as nets standing up on their own. I started making baskets in 1978. They were assertive and distinctly three-dimensional compared to the soft hanging nets.
To my mind, these standing-up nets were baskets in name only. They were images of baskets, so to speak. Real baskets were well defined objects made by traditional or contemporary basketmakers whose knowledge, artistry and intent were unquestioned.
I never used traditional basket making techniques, feeling that these ways of working belonged to others. This was a curiously conservative attitude which was at once limiting (I didn’t give myself permission to make “baskets” and liberating (but I could make basket-like nets and call them “baskets”).
In 1986 I was “Basketmaker-in-Residence” for a year at a college in England, and I found myself (a “Basketmaker” ) in a place where specific traditional forms and precise techniques for reproducing them were the accepted standards. In that context I had to reevaluate my own work, and eventually I understood that my baskets were part of a tradition too. This of course was the new basket tradition which has been growing (in the United States) since the late 1960s. By sharing with me their solid, secure tradition, my English colleagues and students helped me to find my own.
Accepting myself as a basketmaker, I started to make pieces which were more like baskets. This is not to say that I tackled traditional forms, functions, materials, or techniques. Rather, my baskets now conveyed a certain tautness and they became more convincing in their expression of volume. That was the beginning. I look forward to my basket making with a heightened awareness of what is possible, not only for others but for me.
In March 1988, she wrote “It has been a little rough coming back from England to ‘regular life’ here. The residency was a unique and privileged time. …
I had a wonderful time….” and more about a net in progress:
Today I spent time on an interminable knotless net. I am moving on it so slowly, about an inch a day, so in 20 days only 20 inches! It is beginning to be very tiresome, yet I really want it to be…at least another 20”; ideally 60” high. I am using beautiful undegummed silk from Thailand, beautifully golden. Anyway that’s what I’m doing at the moment.
Joanne was both research historian and exhibiting artist for a spectacular exhibit “Knots and Nets” at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, July 1988. At that time, she finally decided to give up her work as scholar, due to health issues, and committed completely to her studio work. Her Artist Statement from the catalog follows:
Twenty years ago I became intrigued by certain similarities between the structures and techniques of traditional baskets and those of netted laces, and at that time I began to make nets. Initially I was inspired by the beautifully patterned knotless netted bags of South America as well as European needle-made laces, but as I became aware of the variety and strength of traditional netting throughout the world, I felt encouraged to continue and expand my own explorations.
Netting techniques themselves are fairly direct and easy to comprehend mentally; yet, like any other medium (or language), netting has its own expressive capabilities. Its units (or phonemes) are interlacements, linear elements, and spatial relationships; those are in turn manipulated through material, which has its own possibilities and limitations.
I try to find my own voice through this visual and kinetic net “language.” Recently I have explored ideas of openess/closedness and of spatial substance (real/not real), has been of particular interest.
I am reminded of a visit to Ithaca in June 1989 to help Joanne hang monofilament nets at a gallery in Ithaca. They looked like condensation or frost or some form of water that was airborne and nearly invisible except for the shadows. Joanne asked “Do you know who buys these?” and answered “The scientists who understand elegant and invisible structures…”
A sampling of Joanne’s extensive exhibit schedule included the IV Textile Triennale, Poland; Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Cooper-Hewitt Museum, NY; Solo show at Cornerstone Gallery, Manchester, England; Knots and Nets, Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY; Solo show at San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum; and Solo shows at the Amos Eno Gallery, NY.
Joanne’s nets and sculptural forms were made by interlacing, knotting, and twining of primarily natural materials, sometimes dyed. Here she wrote about a student from England and a new work in progress:
A student who worked with me in Manchester has just written to tell me about her final year project: “….‘Growing Baskets’ I have been experimenting with willow baskets which I made using freshly cut willow and then float them on water. Where the basket is submerses, tiny white roots begin to grow above the water, leaves begin to sprout.” She has also made baskets and ‘basketwork structures’ and floated them in ponds, rivers streams,etc., intending to record root and leaf growth through photos. I am so pleased to know of his development from my residency!
I completed a large and very beautiful basket. I made it in a sprang construction–all enclosed–no top, side, or bottom openings. I loved working out the structural method and after a struggle, I loved the finished piece. I call it “Mother Basket” because it is so big (26 1/2” across, which is big for me), and I remembered there was, in Tlingit lore, a big, berry-gathering basket saved for generations, called (I thought) Mother Basket. I looked it up recently and discovered that the translation was “Basket Mother.”
Joanne was honored as a Fellow by the New York Foundation for the Arts (1990) and built a handsome studio adjacent to her home. She was thrilled to have light, a designated dyeing area and space! I was amazed to see that she had devised a method of creating sprang structures on a LeClerc loom without a reed or heddles. A collection of woven fragments on one counter caught my eye; she had duplicated ancient Peruvian weavings, and we laughed to imagine they would confuse an inexperienced museum curator!
In 1993 Joanne’s work was included in BASKETS: Redefining Volume and Meaning (Pat Hickman, Curator) at the University of Hawaii. Joanne’s Artist Statement from the catalog follows:
My concerns are: balance, openness, integrity, light, space, gravity. I work to continue and extend basket tradition. I do not copy the old baskets, neither do I use traditional techniques and materials; rather, I explore this form, this idea, and push it as far as I can.
There is no aspect of the tradition which is uninteresting to me; my work is informed and enriched by the strength, sensitivity, diversity and generosity of basket makers of all times, including our own.
Baskets are often linked to domesticity and smallness, the implication being that these qualities preclude significant art work. I could counter with basket shrines made for ritual, or I could point to house-sized baskets (used, indeed, as houses) and so I could ‘elevate’ baskets with religious significance or architectural scale. But all such uses/meanings refer to our humanity, and consequently to ourselves and to our families, to life and to death. What can be more meaningful for an artist working in fiber, than to honor the basket, with its myriad human associations.
Joanne died the spring of 1994.
Recognition of Joanne’s impact and relevance to the fiber community continues today as her name was added to The Brandford/Elliott Award for Excellence in Fiber Art designated for emerging artists working with fiber. The award is presented biennially at the Symposium of the Textile Society of America.