Baskets as art

Baskets can be utilitarian. They can be works of art. And sometimes they can be both.

The baskets on display at the Wilton Historical Society, it could easily be argued, are all works of art, and some just happen to be practical as well.

Four of the craftsmen whose work is in the show Hickory, Ash & Reed: Traditional Baskets, Contemporary Makers — Jonathan Kline, Lois Russell, Kari Lonning, and Gail Halvorsen — were at the historical society Friday, May 20, to talk about their work.

Kline is truly involved in his craft from start to finish in that he begins by cutting his own trees.

“To make these baskets, I have to cut the trees because there is no commercial source of black ash,” he said. Based in central New York, Kline said black ash is the traditional wood used for centuries to make splint baskets in that part of the state.

“Black ash grows in swampy areas and I look for trees that are straight and free of knots,” he said. When he gets them to his studio, he strips the bark and pounds the log with a sledgehammer. This releases the annual growth layers, a response unique to this species of tree. “The wood is strong and supple,” he said, adding he can make around 100 baskets from one eight-foot log.

“There’s nothing more elemental than cutting a tree in the woods and making something beautiful,” he said.

Russell, who is from Massachusetts, grew up “in an old Yankee family where everyone worked with fiber,” she said. Her mother was a weaver who suggested basket weaving to her daughter.

“I got totally engrossed,” she said, but her study was “undirected,” which turned out to her advantage. “I was able to take classes when my husband was able to take care of the kids,” she said. As a result, she took classes all over, from Alaska to New Mexico.

“It was random, but I got a solid background in all kinds of basket making,” and she has worked with all kinds of materials, including bark, wood, pine needles, and even telephone wires.

Fifteen years ago, she decided to get serious and discovered she enjoyed working with waxed linen, which is what she continues to use.

“I started making little baskets, and they kept getting bigger and bigger,” she said. With a weaving and quilting background, she was most interested in color, texture and design.

She started making “useful baskets” that held things like crayons and laundry, but now her pieces are works of art.

Lonning, of Ridgefield, said she knew from the time she was a little girl she was going to make things. “The only time I played with dolls was when I transformed earmuffs into a hat for a doll,” she said.

She entered Syracuse University intending to major in metalwork — she had a small portfolio of metal and clay work from classes she took at the Brookfield Craft Center — but metal did not offer enough in the way of color. She then worked at clay, but the process had too many pitfalls to suit her. Weaving was also lacking, and always in the back of her mind were thoughts of being an architect.

Shortly out of college she discovered reeds and began making hanging planters. While visiting England she saw baskets made for birds. “That’s where my hairy baskets come from,” she said, referring to her baskets woven with short, stiff reeds that have a spiky appearance.

Closest to home is Halvorsen, who learned the craft of weaving Nantucket baskets from the late Harry Hilbert, who had a studio on Old Driftway in Wilton. When she was proficient enough to set up her own studio, she would continue to meet him for lunch at Orem’s Diner and then they would both go to work in Hilbert’s studio.

Halvorsen’s baskets are made in the style of Nantucket lightship baskets. Lightships were vessels that acted as floating lighthouses in dangerous waters, warning ships of shoals off the coast of Nantucket. Beyond tending the lights at night, the crew of about 10 had little to do during deployments that could last six months. Many turned to weaving rattan baskets with wooden bases that they had success selling once they returned to shore.

Halvorsen uses mahogany, cherry or curly maple for her bases and red oak for the staves and rims. On display with her baskets are some of those woven by Hilbert.

The baskets in this show range from tiny purses to long, flat trays to large round harvest and storage baskets. They are complemented by antique baskets from the historical society’s collection of Wilton artifacts.

The show will be on display through Oct. 15. For information, call 203-762-7257 or visit