Sunday, August 12, 2012

Nantucket Berry Basket

I started this basket in 2003-04 while visiting Nantucket Island and taking a Nantucket Basket Making seminar with Islander basket maker Peter Finch. I was there with Charlie my now husband, whose company was renovating the Nantucket Whaling Museum and we had the chance to spend quite a bit of time on the island. I love it there and I always loved the Bantucket Lightship Baskets so it was a natural for me to call up Peter Finch. I didn't have a car so I walked ot his studio/shop/home on Polliwog Pond Road to initially meet him before I took a subsequent seminar another visit. He is a delightful man and a joy to be around. I was thrilled when he agreed to give me a private lesson on my next visit. I heard he still makes baskets but has turned his present day attention to jewelry and he makes a Nantucket "Bracket" which is a woven cuff with scrimshaw etchings. Quite stunning. You can check out his website at .

This particular basket is a six inch berry basket and one of my first projects after getting my first Nantucket mold. Being a novice, I made every mistake you can make on this basket and even put the base on backwards and the staves on upside-down. When I brought it back to Peter Finch and showed it to him, he laughed about it and made a bit of fun so I never really finished the basket because it had gotten off on the wrong foot. It has sort of sat around my shelves for several years. Today, I pulled together a drill with my husbands help and got the handle on and the shell motif on the bottom. You may notice that I signed my name on the backwards bottom M. Smith. This was made before I married Mr. Abbott (which was 6.5 years ago) and became Melissa Smith Abbott. 

If you look at the detail of the staves in this basket you can see how they taper off to the top. This is not supposed to be how it is the tapering should be next to the base. Oh well, it still looks ok and if I didn't tell you, you wouldn't know unless you had an eye for that detail.

The base was also put on backwards and this square part should be on the inside of the basket while the rounded part on the inside should be on the outside. I guess it is a matter of taste and yes I can now see my error. The rounded part would look better on the outside but in my mind the stability of the base should be first and foremost and that is why I probably picked this side when I blindly started this basket, forgetting half of what I had learned from Peter Finch.

I decided to use some bone beads for the handle and I used a screw type nut and bolt affair on the handle as well. I think it looks stunning all finished even if the staves and bottom are a little topsy turvy!

It feels really good to get some projects finished up and make room for more basket projects.
Thanks for reading my blog and for all you basket makers out there, you know you all have the backwards basket someplace on some shelf. I know it! I had one and it took guts to drag it out and finish it in spite of its defects. In hindsight, they are sweet defects and I have learned to love them. Happy Basket making!

Kind Regards,  Melissa Abbott

Friday, August 10, 2012

Trip to Black Whale Gallery Hyannis, MA and meeting Scrimshaw Artist Nancy Lyons while consigning two of my Pine Needle Baskets

"Saharaha" on left and "Web of Space and Time"
Pine Needle Baskets consigned at The Black Whale Gallery
Nancy Lyons owner of The Black Whale Gallery
349 B Main St., Hyannis, MA 02601
My Friend Geri, who lives on Cape Cod and whose Mother was a student of Gladys Ellis the famous Mattapoisett Basket Maker, took me to visit The Black Whale Gallery in Hyannis, Massachusetts recently. The owner Nancy Lyons has been a scrimshaw artist for over 30 years. Her work is stunningly detailed. I was interested in meeting her because of her scrimshaw but also because her aunt was a little known Gloucester photographer in the 1920's named Amy Addison. Amy Addison took wonderful photographs of the Gloucester Schooners and waterfront in both Gloucester and Rockport. Amy Addison was also a printmaker and made beautiful etchings and prints of the waterfront as well. She left her body in 1976 but Nancy Lyons, her niece still carries the energy of her work and has written a book which includes her aunts work. Part of the book was also reproduced recently in Wooden Boat magazine.  

Sailors Valentines in case
Nantucket Baskets and
Ivory Scrimshaw in case
Nancy Lyons and my friend Geri looking at a necklace

The Gallery

Gorgeous Nantucket Baskets

I loved The Black Whale Gallery and meeting Nancy Lyons. There is nothing like travel to get fresh inspiration. Since making my Pine Needle Buddha purse, I want to make more Mattapoisett style Pine Needle purses. The tradition of the Nantucket purses as we know it today may have originally been made in Pine Needles and whale bone before the whalers sailed to Asia and brought back Cane and Rattan to use for basketry.The local Massachusetts native population made baskets from Pine Needles originally and I am of the ilk that if you were to go back in time and "see" what the baskets looked like before whaling trips of the 1850's, they would be Pine Needles. You know back in those days there were no plastic bags and fabric was ultra expensive. A persons basket was their personal receptacle for food, personal items, storage, and even cooking. There are stories that people etched their names in whalebone onto their personal baskets originally so that after the church suppers in Nantucket, everyone would know whose baskets were whose. The baskets were usually round, made of ash and cane and made over a mold of an old spar, mast, or boom from a ship. The nesting baskets were made on The Nantucket Lightships during off hours by the men stationed there to sell to summer tourists on the island beginning in the 1880's. Baskets from the 1800's are quite valuable and collectible. The Lightships were anchored on the shoals off Nantucket during that time functioning as mobile Lighthouses of sorts. It must have been lonely, with hours of idle time. The men filled the hours with making baskets as both a hobby and an art.

 Later in the 1940's and 1950's a Nantucket maker commercialized the Nantucket Purse. His name was Jose Formoso Reyes and he stylized the Nantucket purse with a carved Ivory Whale on the top and a swing handle or leather braided strap. Those baskets were originally known as "Friendship Baskets"  and quickly became the style and rage of visiting summer people and tourists on Nantucket. Hard to believe this but they retailed for $15 then.

My Pine Needle creations feel right at home next to the
Ivory Scrimshaw and Nantucket Baskets

I still imagine the very early local Wampanog tribe making Pine Needle baskets on Nantucket and I do believe there was a tradition of this in Mattapoisett as there was a huge native american population there. We shall never really know because natural fiber and textiles disappear over the years but if you were to squint your eyes, on an anthropological level, it all makes sense. For some reason, this bit of history, while not important to others, inspires me.
The photos above the cases are
Amy Addison Gloucester Photos from 1920's
I love using traditional materials at hand to create useful and creative objects of beauty and function. The whole tradition of the Nantucket Sailors Valentines, Baskets, Scrimshaw, and other Oceanic creative endeavors with a history of using natural materials available is, to me, amazing. When I see Pine Trees growing on the shore, it makes sense to me that this fiber was important.
Amy Addison Gloucester Waterfront Photos
Couple this with great, practically unknown Gloucester waterfront photos in this gallery and I am mesmerized. The Black Whale Gallery is really something special. I felt supported to extend my craft to a creative edge just by going there and seeing all the work of all the basket artists the gallery represents.
More Nantucket Bags and Baskets
So, it makes perfect sense that I consigned my baskets to a place with Nantucket style art, scrimshaw, and other oceanic Massachusetts artists. It was hard for me to leave my baskets someplace. They seem part of me. I picked each pine needle off the grass just as it was freshly fallen and then crafted the baskets stitch by stitch with great love and intention. to me, they are works of art, an expression of a greater whole and a spiritual affinity for the world around me. I have no idea if anyone else will "get" the expression of this work but it feels right and good that I left them at the Black Whale Gallery amongst the old Gloucester photos and Sailors Valentines.

I am going to be working with Nancy Lyons in a collaboration of sorts on my next basket and I will post photos as soon as I get that started. I want to try my hand a Tenneriffe and Ivory Pine Needle Basket Purse in a Mattapoisett Style but with an updated Fiber Arts modern feel. Art for Arts sake, yeah, it is where it is at. There is always a lot of discussion about authenticity in Nantucket basketry. I think the authenticity comes from within and it isn't a historical thing from the past. What gives a basket its energy and light is the makers intentions with form, functionality, and creative expression, no matter when and where it was made. I don't think I could ever try to "exactly copy" a style to sell or pass off as a tradition. I can only envision my own new style and expression in basketry!

Thanks for sharing my trip to Cape Cod with me and my visit to The Black Whale Gallery meeting Nancy Lyons, Amy Addison with my dear friend Geri Gastar. There is more to come....

Kind Regards, Melissa Smith Abbott

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Mermaid Basket

 While I was in Merritt Island, Florida during February 2012, I decided to do a Sculptural style Pine Needle Basket using a reproduction Mermaid Scrimshaw center as a motif. I had gathered a great many really wonderful Florida Long Leaf Pine Needles from a park in Merritt Island after a great windstorm. After washing them in Dawn and laying them outside in the sun to dry, I imagined the center of the basket surrounded by some small tibetan bone beads I had.
 This is the beginning of the mermaid Basket using black Crawford's linen waxed thread. While this was all being pulled together, it is interesting to note that there were many manatees gathering in the canal next tothe dock of our rental house. The house was at the very end of a small offshoot canal off the Banana River waterway there. We were observing them, and feeding them some lettuce leaves. It is thought that sailors imagined the manatees as mermaids. They have trumpets like an elephant but sort of look like a hippo. One night very late, we heard lots of trumpeting in the canal. Waking up out of a dead sleep, I couldn't imagine what was going on. in actuality the bedroom was right next to the canal and we were sleeping virtual steps from about 50 gathered manatees.
 As it happened, and all of this happened while I was working on this basket, and as I started my first sculptural interpretations of waves and bubbles surrounding the Mermaid in the basket, I spoke with the owner of the house and I mentioned that on two subsequent evenings there was a great deal of commotion in the canal with the manatees. She told me that they came every year up into that canal to have their babies and what I was hearing was the births of their young!!

I could hardly believe it! I was witnessing a true miracle as I developed the Mermaid Pine Needle Basket. The reason I am telling you this is because this basket truly has the energy and miracles of Mermaids infused into it! It was a very exciting time!

This is a side view of the finished Mermaid basket and really holds the flavor of those special times with the manatees on Merritt Island, Florida during the winter of 2012!