The Mammoth Cave region is rich in natural as well as cultural history. For generations, families in south central Kentucky have supported themselves through the traditional art form of basket making. Beyond simply weaving the baskets, these folk artists carry out the entire process of gathering and preparing raw materials from white oak trees, and turning the materials into useful works of art. The tradition is linked closely with historic changes in the landscape. For example, when Highway 31W became a major travel corridor, basket stands appeared alongside the road. Over time, the baskets in the area acquired many characteristics that distinguish them from white oak baskets made in other parts of the country. For a number of families, white oak basket making is an inseparable link to their community and individual identities, their geographic location, and their overall sense of “home.”
Leona Waddell of Cecilia, Kentucky learned to make baskets from her mother when she was a child living in Cub Run. She has spent most of her life improving and perfecting her own style of basket making, from splitting and riving the tree into billets, to weaving the thin splits to produce a finished basket.
As a representative of the Mammoth Cave area white oak basket style, Leona is admired both in her community and among basket collectors from all over the world. She is an active member of Mammoth Cave Basket Makers Guild (www.mammothcavebasketmakers.com) and her works are well received each year at the annual Hart County Fair Basket Making Contest. Furthermore she has sold baskets outside the U.S. and demonstrated her work at events such as the Kentucky Folklife Festival and Kentucky Crafted: The Market.
Beyond making baskets, Leona spends considerable time teaching her art to family and community members to ensure that it survives into the future. A recipient of two Folk Arts Apprenticeship grants from the Kentucky Arts Council, Leona strives to ensure that the traditional methods and aesthetics she has inherited continue living among future generations of basket makers.
Her first apprentice was Charlene Long, a fellow guild member who specializes in willow and honeysuckle baskets. This year, Leona’s apprentice is her son-in-law Sam Peters. Anyone who learns from Leona learns the entire process, from tree to finished basket. The tree’s shape, size, and location are all factors that determine its usefulness. Ability to recognize subtleties in the materials may take a lifetime to master.
Sam explains, “When we go out looking for white oak, I’ll see a cluster of trees and ask Mrs. Waddell, ‘Should we check over there?’ She will often say ‘No, there aren’t any in there.’ Of course, she is right; she just naturally knows where to look. For me, a major part of this apprenticeship is learning how she makes these determinations with just a glance.”
Across the country, as suitable white oaks become scarcer, many basket traditions are fading. This is among the greatest challenges to white oak basket making in south central Kentucky. It now takes more time and resources to find proper timber, and only after it is acquired can an apprentice practice the material preparation, use of tools, and the construction of various shapes.
“Sometimes a tree may appear perfect on the outside, but splitting it open reveals flaws that render it useless” says Sam. “Ultimately, the availability of material determines how many baskets we can make in a given time.”
The Kentucky Arts Council’s Folk Arts Apprenticeship grants support an educational experience that goes much deeper than technical training in an art form. In a successful master/apprentice pair, the apprentice must be an “insider” of the community, or what folklorists call the “folk group,” that practices the art form. Master artists select students based upon the student’s potential to master the art form. Kentucky is full various art forms that are practiced in everyday life among families, occupational and recreational groups, ethnic and religious groups, and regional groups. The Kentucky Arts Council has supported the shared knowledge within these groups to promote recognition, continuation, and celebration of Kentucky’s living treasures. Other apprenticeships this past year have included drop-thumb style banjo playing, boat building, fiddling, square dance calling, and the making of alfombras de Semana Santa (Holy Week carpets).
The Kentucky Arts Council encourages master traditional artists along with their prospective apprentices to apply for a Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, which can provide up to $3,000 in teaching fees, materials and travel expenses. The deadline to submit application and work samples is March 31, 2005. For guidelines, instructions and application go to http://artscouncil.ky.gov/guide/prog4/faa_gdl.html. For more information, contact Kentucky Folklife Program Director Bob Gates toll free at 877-444-7867 ext. 4481 or by e-mail email@example.com or Kentucky Folklife Program Folklife Specialist Mark Brown at 877-444-7876 ext. 4491 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Kentucky Folklife Program is an interagency program of the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Historical Society, both state agencies in the Commerce Cabinet.
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The Kentucky Arts Council is a state agency in the Commerce Cabinet. Working in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arts Council invests in programs that develop vibrant communities, provide lifelong education in the arts and support arts participation. Every $1 in grant funds awarded by the Kentucky Arts Council helps grantees secure $15 in earned income and matching funds from individuals, philanthropic sources and other levels of government.