JMD: When did you first start basket weaving? What inspired me?
MW: Being in Nature is my inspiration, the place I find comfort, intrigue and delight. I've been fortunate to live in places near a vacant lot, a trail head, a beach, or a mountain. I remember making my first basket out of a pile of willow trimmings we found while beach-combing with my young sons, then five and two. We instinctively fashioned a nest-like baskeet into which the boys carefully placed teh perfect egg-shaped stones they found. That was pure fun - I was hooked.
JMD: Weaving is an anceient craft. Do you have a style or era that inspires me? Where have you learned techniques?
MW: I live on the traditional territorial of Suquamish Tribe, "The People of Clear Salt Water", a sovereign nation of Indigenous Salish Peoples who have lived here since the beginning. From the moment I began to pay attention to the native plants growing around my house and in the margins of our food garden, I developed an insatiable desire to learn everything i could about these plants and how they were utilized by those who lived here before me, those who were digging the same roots and harvesting the same limbs, barks, and grasses.
It’s been my good fortune to has as a neighbor, Ed Carriere, one of the few remaining Suquamish Basket Makers, who was willing to share his knowledge with me. Over the past 35 years of friendship, whenever I’ve learned something about the use of another plant material, I share the knowledge and techniques with him. And as Ed Carriere’s fame has grown over the years and he has traveled the world sharing his knowledge, he always comes back from his trips and shares all the good things he’s learned with me, like techniques from the Ainu in Japan, and the Maori in New Zealand. I am inspired by the universality of many techniques and how everyone’s ancestors where likely from weaving cultures. But I am solidly grounded in those processes used for materials unique to the Pacific Northwest of North America. I use the traditional knowledge I’ve learned to create contemporary art work, and traditional utilitarian basketry.
JMD: What are some of the fibers you use and where do you find them?
MW: These days I use the plant fibers within my reach. I plant and grow many of my favorite materials because I have realized for many years, that those pristine places - estuaries, forests, wetlands, meadows - all the places that basket makers have gathered for centuries, are all diminishing. For many years in May or June, I would gather Western Red Cedar bark in the mountains, with my friend Polly Adams Sutton. We would pull bark from trees that were soon to be clear-cut for lumber. Each July, I would gather my favorite three-sided Sweet Grass from beautiful estuaries, but now, as it should be, the few estuaries left intact today, are in protected Wilderness Areas. So rather than cause further impact on those special places, I create my own “bogs” in large pots to grow the Sweet Grass, and Cattail; and every opportunity I have, I plant young Western Red Cedar trees for the next generation of Basket Makers.
JMD: Do you know what you are making before you start? Do you have a plan, or do you take guidance from the articles?
MW: Most of the time I know what I’m making before I start because all the materials need to be gathered, cured (drying process), soaked, mellowed (sitting in damp towels for a prescribed time), and prepared by splitting into layers which are the proper thickness and size for the particular project. I know that doesn’t sound very creative or spontaneous; however, three/fourths of the time required to complete a project is in this gathering and preparation of materials, which provides a lot of time for thought and reflection, and often leads to revelation, and envisioning something else I wish to make next. Then one/fourth of the time is the actual weaving or assembling of the prepared materials.
But sometimes I do have an idea going into a project, but I don’t exactly know how it will come together. One time, after splitting cedar roots and limbs for hours, I went to bed with my hands quite sore. That night, I dreamed my hands were gnarly, twisted root balls at the end of my arms. Most people would be frightened by that dream, but I was actually comforted, in that my hands were becoming part of the tree.
Another time, when I had an ambitious project idea, I wanted to make a large bird-like form that gives the feeling of flying, but could be mounted on a wall. I didn’t know how to go about making it. But then I dreamed exactly how to make the wing-like piece. And I have made several since.
I do listen to the materials and take cues from them, even when I’m making a purely utilitarian basket for the garden or for storage. If there is a flaw, curve, burrow, or knot in a frame piece, or a weaver, rather than toss it, I might feature it, and build the basket or art piece in a way that shows off the irregularity.
My appreciation for imperfection has grown over the years. The marks, bug tracks, contorted roots, all tell their stories, about struggles in life, and I find that meaningful. I weave with those time-honored materials and techniques as part of a continuum. I am participating in a living art form which tells the story of transformation, how humble materials such as tree bark and grasses can become elevated to art, or to become a useful basket.
JMD: Do you have a favourite piece?
MW: I suppose whatever piece I've just finished becomes my new favourite piece. I just finished "Cedar By The Sea - Radiating Love".
About Melinda West
Melinda West has been practicing the art and craft of plant fiber wearving for more than three decades. Many of her teachers are Salish Peoples whose ancestors invented and sustained a world of environmental knowledge through their stories, songs and cultural practices including weaving with native plants. Motivation to create art and functional forms with plant materials comes from a deep gratitude for native cultures and natural landscapes. Her award-winning art may be seen in public and private collections around the world. Visit melindawest.com for more information.