Black Ash Basketry

By Emily Umentum, guest contributor

Basketry is one of the oldest crafts in human history, and yet the knowledge of making these simple, and once essential, vessels has become a rarity in the modern age. Of the available basket-making materials, the flexibility and durability of black ash is unsurpassed; baskets woven of black ash splints can endure extreme compression and load and yet quickly spring back to their original form and strength, even after having been in use for years or even decades!  This beautiful, yet useful art has been making a renaissance in Northern Wisconsin since a few individuals have taken the time to seek out those who know the craft and are willing to pass it down to others.

April StoneDahl, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) is currently the only black ash basket weaver of her band.  Studying and weaving since 1998, she has also been teaching basketry in northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan since 2000. April takes great pride in weaving quality utilitarian baskets which are meant to be used. I first encountered April more than a year ago when I visited the annual Traditional Ways gathering held on the Bad River Reservation near Ashland, Wis. My first impressions of her dedication to craftsmanship, durability and sustainability have been proven accurate in all my dealings with her since.

During the year after I first visited Bad River, I have been serving as a VISTA with Northwoods NiiJii, a Wisconsin tribally-affiliated nonprofit based on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation. VISTA is a federal service program charged with fighting poverty, in my case, by helping develop a community-oriented art center and gallery known as the Woodland Indian Art Center . In the course of helping build infrastructure and form community partnerships, I have had the opportunity to engage various artists from communities outside Lac du Flambeau as well. Luckily for us, April was one of those artists.

Those in attendance at the August 26, 2011, Black Ash Basket class at the Woodland Indian Art Center were able to witness this tree’s amazing properties firsthand as they learned the preparation of materials and crafted their own baskets! The instructors, April and Jarrod StoneDahl of Woodspirit (www.woodspiritgallery.com), began by discussing the habitat, behavior and current threats to this singular and historic tree.

The Black Ash, Fraxinus nigra, is a deciduous (seasonally leaf dropping) tree native to cool, wet regions of the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada. It is currently threatened by an invasive insect known as the Emerald Ash Borer, whose larvae are spread by the movement of firewood from park to park. The best chance we have of preserving the black ash from complete destruction is to encourage campers to only purchase firewood locally, instead of transporting it. Why all the fuss over this one tree species?

This tree is unique among all North American trees because its growth rings (the seasonal trunk growth produced by the tree) are not connected to each other by fibers, as are other trees. As mundane as such a distinction may seem to the average person, for basket-makers it means that the rings may be separated from each other and made into splints for baskets. Without this tree, this particular type of basketry is in danger of disappearing.

Jarrod explained that Black Ash trees form annual growth rings of two types of wood: spring wood is a rapidly laid-down, loose connective layer which links each year of more robust summer growth to the next. He stated that by soaking the trunk in water and then pounding it with a rounded steel mallet, the spring connective layer is crushed and allows for the summer wood to be peeled off in long strips. The weaker bond of the connecting fibers is what allows the summer wood strips to separate. These strips, or ‘splints’, as they are called, vary in color according to where they lie in the tree; sap wood, the outer layer where moisture is currently flowing in the tree, is a lighter color, and heart wood, which lies at the core of the tree where moisture once flowed, is darkened with age. Trees are typically harvested in late spring or early summer (because the bark can slip off with prodding of the hands), and pounded right after harvest.  Although spring and summer is the ideal time, trees may be harvested throughout the year as needed.

After receiving the lecture and viewing some very artistic diagrams on the Art Center whiteboard, the class wandered outside to test the theory for themselves on a soaked and freshly-peeled black ash log set up for the occasion. Jarrod began the demonstration and each student tried a hand at pounding; the consensus was that despite an absence of fibers, separating the layers still was a lot of work! Who knew basket-making could be so vigorous?

The class was told that the strips were further refined by scraping and splitting, typically with a stout knife, in order to give one side of each strip the satiny-smooth finish characteristic of the exterior of black ash baskets. Splints are then rolled up and may be stored indefinitely. After experiencing only a fraction of the prep work involved in pounding and a demonstration of splitting, the class was grateful for their pre-pounded, scraped and split materials!

The first step in weaving a basket is to select and trim the splints to a desired length, in this case, a little longer than the width of the bottom, plus twice the height of the basket. These strips are generally thicker because they will be bent to become the vertical portion, or the ‘uprights’ of the basket’s walls. They must be trimmed along their length as well, because uniformity of width helps guarantee the tightness of the basket’s weave, especially on the bottom.

Trimmed splints are then soaked in a basin of water until they are pliable, and woven into a mat in which the small squares between the weave are kept the same. One of the future ‘uprights’ is then split in two, the long way, down to the bottom of the basket; this now-uneven number of uprights guarantees that the basket’s horizontal weave will stay uniform.

The next step in weaving is to decide on the width of the ‘weavers’ or horizontal splints in making the basket; different looks are achieved by trimming weavers to be thicker, narrower, or the same as the width of the uprights. The first weaver is always the trickiest, as the uprights are not yet bent upwards! After the first weaver goes all the way around the basket and crosses two consecutive uprights, then the uprights may be bent into their true upright position. Eventually, the uprights are held in place by the weavers, and the basket comes together quickly.

When the basket has reached its desired height, the uprights are trimmed and tucked away to leave a smooth surface for the rim. The inner and outer rims, typically cut from a thicker splint, are positioned and held in place with spring clips until they are firmly lashed into position with a very narrow, pliable strip of splint wrapped one way, and then the other.

Everyone in the class was pleased with their durable and attractive new baskets; students left both creatively and ecologically informed about this singular tree and its uses. Given the skills of April’s apprentices and captivation of her students, the black ash in our region will certainly have a fighting chance! We hope to have April and Jarrod back again soon; stay tuned for upcoming announcements on future black ash basket classes! Please feel free to stop in at the Woodland Indian Art Center, located at 562 Peace Pipe Rd. in downtown Lac du Flambeau or call us at 715-588-3700 for more information.

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Emily Umentum is a VISTA member serving at the Woodland Indian Art Center in Lac du Flambeau, WI.  There she helps develop community partnerships, organizational capacity and arts programming. She has worked and volunteered with a number of community arts and education organizations in the Midwest and abroad; from puppet theaters to women’s shelters, organic farms to language schools, she brings a diverse array of experiences to bear in her writing. See her original post, with additional photos, at the Woodland Indian Art Center blog.

2 Responses to Black Ash Basketry

  1. Linda Sunde says:

    Great job on this, Emily. I would like to send it to the VISTA Campus and maybe for the Viewfinder newsletter.

    Linda Sunde

  2. [...] as an important part of the preservation of nearly-extinct arts, such as sweetgrass basketry ,black ash basketry and specialized forms of moccasin making. NiiJii was able to assist with classes taught by Native [...]

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