Berkshire basket makers shape their art from tree to twill


When Penobscot basketmaker Jeremy Frey visited the Berkshire Museum this fall, he brought an ash log to turn into fine strips of wood, split along the grain. He would split these into still thinner strips by hand and then into narrower strips with a hand tool set with small blades.

When Joann Kelly Catsos and her husband, Steve, bring a black ash log to their workshop in Ashley Falls, they will also make the splints for their baskets -- from finger-width weavers for a backpack to filaments as find as thread.

Frey lays out his logs on wooden rests and pounds the wood with an ax, blunt end down, to loosen the tree's growth rings. The Catsos bring their logs into the workshop, cut them into even lengths with a shave horse and a two-handled draw knife -- and pound them with a retrofitted jack-hammer.

In the more than 25 years that Joann has made baskets and taught basketry, she and Steve, who is a woodworker, have ingeniously re-shaped every step in the art-form.

"I was always a hands-on person," she said. "I was brought up on a dairy farm. If you needed something, you made it."

Today she has work in the Smithsonian's collection. One of her baskets has hung on the White House Christmas tree, and she teaches close to 50 different styles of baskets across the country.

She and Steve have grown their art over the years with care and intense delight. They invented new tools for the workshop because they liked having the freedom to make their own materials: weavers and uprights, rims and handles.

"With a table saw and a lathe, we can make our own basket molds," she explained, as she demonstrated an adapted pair of heavy pliers, clamping the end of an ash splint and drawing it over a bank of knives, to cut it into long, narrow strips, like making pasta from a wide noodle.

She will weave the strips over a basket mold, a solid wooden shape to give the basket form and size. Many of her molds come from Shaker patterns.

Catsos follows in a long tradition of Berkshire basket makers. She has collected many examples of their work about her: a Shaker cat's-head baskets with points at the base like ears, a Mohawk basket decorated with sweet grass, pine needles woven like lace in a star pattern, a Taconic basket made by "bushwhackers," European settlers in the mountains, with a swing handle and a "kicked-in" or inverted bottom. They began weaving the basket over a bent knee, she said.

Among the Shakers, the men made baskets, said Ann Clark, a Pittsfield basket maker, and they made many kinds and shapes, for many jobs -- field baskets, market baskets, two-lobed egg baskets, orchard baskets for apples, giant baskets made to hold laundry for 100 people at once. It took two people to carry a laundry basket when it was full.

Clark retired early from the Postal Service in Lee. She volunteers at Hancock Shaker Village and has taught basketry classes there.

"The Shakers valued function over form," Clark said. "I have that in common with them. I like things that are simply made, pleasant to look at and useful."

Clark makes baskets to carry her tools and knitting yarn. Like Catsos, she discovered basketry because she liked working with her hands and making things she needed.

"I've always been interested in everything," she said. "I would look at a Victorian Christmas tree and come home and crochet snowflakes."

She works mostly with rattan (a bamboo-like plant native to Asia, Africa and Australia); She has studied with Wendy Jensen, a Monterey basketmaker who works with rattan and with willow that she grows on her own land. Jensen's work appeared in the Eagle in August.

Clark knows and admires Catsos' work. She is glad, she said, to know that people still hold these skills. She likes the versatility of rattan, and she can buy it inexpensively, which means she can sell her baskets relatively inexpensively.

But ash, she said, has a shine and a smooth toughness and will last hundreds of years.

Catsos may take hundreds of hours to make her materials and to make her own shapes and patterns. "Prestidigitation," a tapering tube of a basket with a mazing pattern of black and white diamonds, shimmers like an optical illusion. Her baskets are artwork, as skilled as a bronze sculpture, a cherry wood table or a landscape panting.

She often has to explain, she said, that a fishing creel two inches high, woven of fiber slighter than yarn, takes at least as long to make as a creel two feet high, and maybe longer, because the weave and the materials are so fine.

She makes baskets for their beauty and strength, and she knows the worth of the time they take to make.

She picks up a basket with an eight-pointed star pattern at the base, a doubling of a Shaker quatrefoil. She invented this design, and she calls it the snow flake. The close, glinting weave dimples like snow around the bowl of an ash tree.

Joann Kelly Catsos displays basketry in Sheffield

Where: Festival for the Holidays -- an ongoing marketplace of Berkshire artisans -- carries Joann's baskets along with hand-blown glass jewelry, pottery, leather goods, carved items, felted woolens, wooden items, note cards and books.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 24.

Where: Sheffield Historical Society's Old Stone Store, 161 Main St., Route 7, Sheffield.

Admission: Free

Information: (413) 229-2694


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