Five Questions for Basket Collectors Martha Ware and Steve Cole
December 3, 2013
Debrah Dunner, curatorial assistant at our Renwick Gallery, interviewed basket collectors Martha Ware and Steve Cole about A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets at the Renwick Gallery. The show is up for six more days, through December 8, 2013.
Eye Level: What prompted you to start collecting baskets?
Martha Ware and Steve Cole: We've often said that a collector doesn't realize they are starting a collection when they first purchase something. Our interest in baskets reflects our longstanding interest in indigenous crafts. We met when we both were Peace Corps volunteers in Colombia in the early 1970s. We loved the native crafts of Colombia. When we returned to the United States, we brought many with us; among them were six baskets. Jump forward about 15 years to a business trip Steve took to Louisville, Kentucky. On a random walk through the downtown area, he bumped into the Kentucky Craft Gallery, founded by Kentucky First Lady Phyllis George to support the crafts of her state. The Gallery included a craft shop where, unexpectedly, he purchased five baskets that day. Two of these by Richard Krupa and Jesse Butcher (attributed) are included in the exhibition. When Steve entered our home upon returning, he said to me, "you're not going to believe what I just did!"
EL: What personal guidelines did you use to build your collection?
MW/SC: Initially, we were less selective than we became. Martha grew up in Arizona so we naturally began to acquire Native American baskets. We also began our search for baskets near our home in Virginia. It wasn't long until we felt the need to narrow our collecting. In particular, we decided to no longer collect Native American baskets, refocusing our collecting on the baskets made by the descendants of American immigrants - primarily the children and grandchildren of African Americans and English and German settlers. There are many baskets in the collection that don't fall into these categories, but many do. Very early, we decided to restrict our collecting to baskets that are entirely handmade from materials harvested by the artisan. We wanted our baskets to be as natural as possible and avoided baskets with dyed material. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we wanted baskets that were traditional—those that were made to do a task, vessels made to hold something.
EL: What were the challenges of collecting you discovered as you went along?
MW/SC: At some point in our collection, we realized that we were creating a collection that was broadly representative or a particular kind of basket: vessels based largely on tradition. Ensuring that the collection achieved this objective was at times a challenge. We wanted to ensure that we had excellent examples of baskets from the widest range of materials, from as many places in the country as there were basket making traditions, and that reflected the uncommon talents of as many contemporary traditional basket makers as we could find. Early on, finding new artisans was a challenge. We went to craft shows. We visited galleries where we might find a new maker. We also simply kept our eyes open for the unexpected, finding baskets in convenience stores (McCauley) and by the side of the road. Eventually, the relatively small community of basket makers began to use the Internet as a way to let the world know about them and their baskets. This helped immensely as we sought to close the last few important holes in the collection.
EL: Why did you decide to donate your collection the Renwick Gallery?
MW/SC: We never gave serious thought to donating our collection to the Renwick. Steve worked on the same block on 17th Street as the Gallery and visited it quite often. Over the years, he came to believe that the Renwick had no interest in the kind of baskets he and Martha collected, ones that leaned heavily to tradition. Our experience of the Renwick was that it exclusively or almost exclusively focused on contemporary studio crafts, ones that tended to the Avant Garde, or, to a lesser extent, toward established artists working in traditional ways whose names were widely recognized, at least in their own fields. Traditional baskets, no matter how finely wrought, no matter how beautiful, are still very humble crafts made by humble people. We never believed the Renwick would have any interest in what we had. At an event at our home, a guest encouraged us to let the Renwick know about our collection. We did and the rest is history.
We are often asked why we have given our collection to the Renwick Gallery at a relatively young age; we are in our mid-60s. The simple answer is that we had the opportunity and believed it might not come again. Curators change, tastes change and so we accepted the Gallery's invitation to donate our collection. Three quarters of the collection has already been donated. Another quarter less a few are promised gifts. The last few we have chosen to leave to our daughters.
EL: What is your favorite basket in the collection, and why?
MW/SC: We don't have one favorite. Martha has especially loved Jennifer Heller Zurick's Black Willow Bark Carrying Basket, #205. Like all of Jennifer's baskets, it has so much life and presence; it breathes. Both of us love Jeffrey Gale's white ash baskets. They reflect what we think are the essential elements of a great basket: excellent materials, uncommonly fine workmanship, excellence in design reflected in just the right balance and proportion. If we had to choose just one of Jeffrey's, it would, no doubt, be the Large Market Basket. We also want to mention Aaron Yakim and Cynthia Taylor. Both as basket makers and as scholars of the craft, Ike and Cindy have made extraordinary contributions. Their white oak baskets are unsurpassed. We especially love Ike's Kentucky Egg Basket, #4-09, and Cindy's Egg Basket with Converging Ribbing, #99-13. Finally, Steve has always loved Bill Cook's Market Basket. In so many ways, he believes it achieves what every traditional basket seeks: beauty, simplicity of design, uncommon quality, and to be used (in our case to hold our dogs' toys for more than two decades). Frankly, it seems a bit unfair not to list all of the baskets and basket makers as our favorites. Each and every basket and its maker have enriched our lives for years. We're truly lucky to have had these baskets and befriended their makers.
Baskets really come from a time where materials were neutral and eco-friendly. However, due to recent (as recent as the 1940s!) legislation the use of hemp materials has been suppressed. Jefferson and Franklin were engaged in hemp farming and the hemp trade. And, until the 1940s almost no such item as a woven basket, a sail, a rope and many technical garments were without interwoven hemp fibers. I'm sure the more historical basket specimens must still show traces.
Posted by: Darragh McCurragh | Dec 6, 2013
I agree to some degree to this point: "They reflect what we think are the essential elements of a great basket: excellent materials, uncommonly fine workmanship, excellence in design reflected in just the right balance and proportion." But have made a quite other criteria for my collection of baskets 'the daily and cheap "splint basket," which are not always beautiful! I believe they can also be found in the States. But who collects them?
Posted by: Per-Olof Johansson | Dec 10, 2013
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