Sitting in her long denim skirt amid a pile of split kudzu and a group of fiercely focused students, Nancy Basket weaves stories as fluidly as she weaves vines. Nancy learned basketry from a lifelong friend 40 years ago and started teaching soon after that. When asked how she first became interested in basketry, Nancy replied with a sassy story – as is often the case. “Long, long time ago before computers and cellphones, kids played outdoors. I loved collecting dried plants for indoor arrangements, until my brothers burned them. Luckily, the shed didn’t catch on fire…dumb kids! I hung out with the cattails watching red wing blackbirds, built mud pies, and generally learned what bent and what didn’t during all the seasons.”
Nancy is mostly self-taught, stating that “My friend showed me how to work with pine needles one morning while our kids slept, and I knew it was a lifelong pursuit.” But being in the Pacific Northwest didn’t lend itself to Long-Leaf pines, a Southeast native plant; and so eventually Nancy felt drawn to the US Southeast to be closer to the pine needles – and found herself in kudzu country.
Moving across the US and living in different areas prompted the use of whatever grew in the backyard. Helping to start the first modern US basketry guild (makers of bee skeps from rye straw had formed the first guilds) led Nancy to search for local crafters of many kinds. “I asked questions of other basket makers and took a few classes early on to experience what each natural material needs in order to process it well.” The Vi Phillips Basketry Guild/Northwest Basket Weavers, which Nancy helped start around 1979, is still going strong in Seattle, WA.
When asked, “Why baskets, and how did Kudzu become your thing?” Nancy had a lovely story to share…of course! “A grandmother on my father’s side was Margaret Basket. She was born in Indian Territory before it was Oklahoma. Dad said we were Cherokee. One of the Nations where I grew up said that when you were a good basket maker, you changed your name and took one of your ancestor’s names. I was making baskets a year before my great-uncle gave me that information. Ten years later in South Carolina, I thought I might be good enough to claim my grandmother’s last name. Epigenetics is the science of what our ancestors pass down to us through many generations. It says more about you than DNA can. Basketry must be in my skirt genes. (I always wear denim skirts, hah!)”
Nancy went on to explain that “Kudzu was prevalent 30 years ago, and when I was a public school artist in education, the thicker vines were free; readily available; and could be gathered, split and transported easily. I love turning reputations around! Everything and everyone has a purpose. Nothing should be laughed at and called ‘no account.’ Learning from all our stories and cultures and blending them together in a closely woven fabric ultimately keeps us all warm.”
When asked to share about her feelings about the Earthskills community in general and Firefly in particular, Nancy had some beautiful words to say:
“I’ve always loved the people who supported me and introduced me to an alternative culture 30 years ago when I first entered the state. I already had 10 years of basketry experience. Introduction into the Earthskills community and Firefly when it first formed was providential. Sitting outside reuniting with friends, teaching younger people who grew up listening to my stories meant a lot. Firefly has always honored older teachers of culture. The organization has circled round and asked elders for guidance and direction. Those of us who are now as old as those from whom we learned in our beginnings appreciate the places and people who create space for us now. The younger ones are a delight to work with. We Old People know our skills transfer to those who still listen.
Members of this community are a tribe of family. We have found where we fit, maybe in many previous lifetimes. Knowing how to take care of yourself, using what grows close to you is imperative. It is freeing. Knowing those who have other areas of expertise [gives you] a living encyclopedia. It reflects on the Native philosophy. We don’t teach all of our children the same things; if we do, then we don’t need each other.”
This is the heart of the Earthskills movement and the Firefly Gathering in particular – to recognize, cherish and grow our healthy interdependence. Thank you, Nancy, for your years of wisdom and teaching and all that you bring to our family!
You can learn more about Nancy Basket and her amazing Kudzu creations by visiting her website at NancyBasket.com, or, if you’re in the area, her amazing gallery in Walhalla, SC. At the very least, make it a point to spend some time with this witty and wise-crackin’ woman at your next Firefly Gathering!