C = Claire Repsholdt, J = Jason JacksonView podcast page
River Cane Basket Transcript
C: Welcome to A Thing of Beauty. I’m your host, Claire Repsholdt, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University studying English and History. This podcast is part of Themester, a themed semester brought to you by the College of Arts and Sciences. This fall we are exploring beauty as a core component of human experience. In each episode, we’ll invite a faculty member to share an object of beauty with us. So, let’s meet our guest.
C: Today I’d like to welcome Jason Jackson. He’s a professor of folklore and the Director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.
C: Thank you for being here today.
J: Thank you for having me
C: Uh, so, I hear that you’ve chosen an object that’s special to you because of many aspects of your career, and I was wondering if you could describe that object for us to start us off.
J: I would love to. It’s a basket. Uh -- Some people say I’m obsessed with baskets, but I think they have a, they have a lot to teach us. This particular basket that I’ve chosen was made by a woman named Rowena Bradley, and she was a Cherokee basket maker from a place called Cherokee, North Carolina, which is in the western part of North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains. And this basket is in the collection of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, where I work.
J: It is, square, um, at the base. It’s aller than it is wide. It has a lid on top, so that in a way it’s two baskets in one because the lid is a basket, itself, that’s in essence turned upside down and placed on top. It’s covered in a kind of, design of rows of diamonds and it’s got three different colors to it. There’s a, there’s a tan, which is the natural color of the, the river cane of which it’s made, there’s--and then there’s two different colors that were achieved with natural dyes. One of them is kind of orange, and then there’s a sort of dark brown color, so it has uh, a combination of stripes, and diamonds, and then it’s--and then these different elements are in these three different colors.
It’s not totally obvious if you look at it, but if you were to take it apart you could learn that it’s, um, what is called a double-woven basket, and what that means is that it’s in essence two baskets woven together, and when a basket’s made out of river cane or bamboo, what that means is that there’s a shiny outer surface and a rougher, um, surface, which comes from the inside of the plant, but in a river cane basket like the one that Rowena Bradley made, the shiny, smooth, glossy, beautiful exterior is present both on the inside and the outside of the basket. This was seen as a kind of beautiful characteristic, but it’s also very practical because that shiny, smooth, glossy exterior is very water resistant, very durable, very stain resistant, so it’s very, um, sensible. But from a technical point of view, this is the most difficult kind of basket to produce because you in essence weave a basket and then you weave another basket inside of that basket to produce the double-sided effect.
C: And can people go see that basket on display, or is it a special collection item? How do we find it?
J: Folks’ll definitely have a chance to look at it. And it will be in our teaching gallery this fall.
C: Great. We’re looking forward to seeing it then. So, what are some aspects of the object that made you think it was particularly beautiful? Like, why did you choose it for this conversation today?
J: You’ll see as we talk about beauty that a big part of my understanding of beauty has to do with context. I come from a scholarly tradition, which is very interested in beauty, but the way in which we come at beauty has a lot to do with the--the context that surrounds the objects that we might engage with and might consider to be beautiful.
C: Right, so when you’re looking at the surface of the object and thinking of it as beautiful, what definition are you bringing to bear? So what are you thinking of as beauty that you’re looking at the object and thinking, oh, yes this is a beautiful thing.
J: In many societies--and this isn’t a universal definition of beauty--but in many of the societies that I’ve come to know, um--things are beautiful if they have the characteristic of being well made, so we can imagine an easel painting or a basket or a, an automobile that’s well designed, as having this quality of beauty as an outgrowth, in part, of the fact that it was made particularly well by someone who was a master of the field or genre in which they work.
So Rowena Bradley’s basket has some of those characteristics. She was recognized as the, the most talented and gifted weaver of these river cane baskets in her generation, and, she also was a key person in carrying that tradition forward out of the past and handing it on to others. So that, for many people, she’s a kind of inspiration and a teacher, and we can see some of the reasons for that in the basket, itself, in that it’s, as an example of its type, extremely well made, and visually the contrast between the dyed and the natural cane that the basket is composed of is very well executed and has, from the Cherokee cultural point of view, a compelling design that’s well done.
C: So do you see the artist in that? Is her identity part of your, kind of, love for the basket? Or, is it really the object that you’re focusing on?
J: I think that if I were just encountering the object-- Many of the visitors to our museum, their first encounter with a basket like this will be as an object that they don’t know very much about. I think many of them, seeing it just as a thing in the world, would find it interesting and compelling. It would cause people to say things like, “I’d like to know more about that.” But also I think that, the graphic design, so to speak, of it is very compelling.
In terms of her work, it’s a signature item for her, in the sense that this basket is, perhaps, of a type that is the most, sort of, challenging and complicated to make well, and so-- Other museums, for instance, have baskets--by her--that are similar to the one that we have, and they, they, selected this one, and she produced baskets like this because they kind of expressed her, her, art and her craft at its most refined.
C: So was this a later career piece for her?
J: I think so. Yeah. The kind of basket that this example is m an instance of is a kind of basket that goes back in this region, in the Southeastern United States, long, long, long before Europeans and others arrived here. So that, if you were to ask a Cherokee person about the oldest and most culturally important kind of basketry that they make, this would be the--the kind of basket that they would point to.
What’s interesting is that, the Cherokee have adopted many other styles of basketry, some of which are relatively modern. For instance, the Cherokee make beautiful baskets out of honeysuckle, which is an introduced species that came from Japan. It’s kind of an obnoxious weed, at least in Cherokee country, but they make beautiful baskets. The tradition of that kind of basketry, though, is relatively recent, whereas the basket that I’ve pointed us to is, um, y’know, the oldest, (C: ok) kind of basketry that we know.
C: So, share with me, for people who don’t know a lot about baskets, who might encounter them (J: Yeah) most frequently at garage sales (J: Oh) or Goodwill shelves-- (J: Sure, sure). Share with me, kind of, an, an ode, to the basket, (J: Oh) or something, kind of, your introductory understanding of why we should appreciate baskets, and see, like how we can understand the nuances of a good basket.
J: There’s a basket maker here in Indiana named Vicki Graber. She was just featured recently on a, a WTIU television program. Um?
C: And I think she was in the last Themester, too?
J: She was the artist in residence for us last year during, uh, Themester. She, she says about baskets, that when you see a basket, you’re seeing something that a human being made with their own skills and hands, that there’s not a machine to make baskets. Now, there’s certainly machines that make fake baskets, you know, plastic laundry baskets or what not, but even the inexpensive basket that you’re finding at Goodwill and Pier One, somewhere in the world there’s a person who’s put their energies and labor into making that thing.
J: And so that, uh, basketry is one of the few kinds of crafts, where, when you encounter it, you’re encountering somebody who’s turning their own knowledge and the work of their hands into a thing in the world.
Now, some of those things are relatively ephemeral, right? Um, I’ve been traveling to China recently, and if you walk around in Chinese villages in the Southwest of China, you’ll see baskets, broken baskets, lying everywhere, out. They’re just going back to the earth. They’re-- Nobody thinks about baskets in those sorts of settings as, you know, extraordinary high art: they’re, they’re tools that people use to, to make their way in the world.
When I stop and look at them, though, I see skill and talent, and I’m-- I’m interested in all kinds of beauty, uh, beautiful things, but I’m drawn, personally, to things that are both practical and beautiful, and for me a basket is a really good example of that. Y’know we can encounter poorly made baskets. If you or I were to make one at a summer camp, you know, the results probably wouldn’t be that great, but in its highest forms, this is, like other crafts and art, something that takes a lifetime of work to master, and not everyone succeeds. There are masters in the world and Rowena Bradley was one of them.
C: Mhm. So I know you’ve spent time working with Native American populations to understand material culture and their history, and I don’t think the Cherokee is your specialty. So, tell me about how you came to be interested in this basket as compared to the different art forms by the populations you study.
J: What’s interesting about the case of Cherokee baskets are that the kinds of baskets that Rowena Bradley made and that other Cherokee basket makers make today…
One of the reasons why there are people making those today is that there’s an outside market for them. (C: Mm) The Cherokee people live near, near um, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park? (C: Oh, I see.) And, what that means is that many outsiders come to their community, and that’s given them a market in which they can sell their art. Um, and you know, the more beautiful those works the more compelling they’re gonna be to outsiders. So beauty and commerce meet, for instance, in a situation like that.
So that some of the groups that I spend time getting to know, they live in out of the way places where, frankly, outsiders just never come. And in those sorts of places, the reason why basketry would continue would be if it was fulfilling a practical need. Well, you may have baskets in your life, I may have baskets in my life, but the range of practical needs that baskets these days serve has reduced greatly, right? We have plastic buckets. We have backpacks made out of nylon or what have you. We carry our laundry around in things we call baskets, but those are usually made out of plastic or something. So that in many Native American communities in the south, where there’s a very deep and old tradition of making baskets, baskets none the less aren’t made very much anymore, where the Cherokee, today, still make baskets, they mainly make beautiful, beautiful baskets for outsiders, but they’re-but Rowena Bradley’s parents and grandparents, and her ancestors further back-- They made baskets to use in everyday life.
And, this brings us back to the interests of my field, which has to do with, on the one hand, with this, you know, things that are beautiful in the world, but the kinds of things which my colleagues and I are most interested in, you now, are beautiful things that are woven into everyday life. It’s not that we don’t love art museums or operas, but the kinds of things that are beautiful in your house or mine are of a kind of special interest to my colleagues and I.
C: If it is something that you see in daily life, it is, and you’re talking about artistic laundry baskets, I wonder about your own use of baskets. So you’ve chosen it as, in this case, a museum piece, but what other ways are you seeing baskets? And do you always have the same reaction, when they’re not in China or when (J: Oh, no) they’re not in a museum?
J: In a way, you’re asking me about anonymous baskets. How do I experience Pier One, for example?
C: Is that a technical term—(J: oh) “anonymous baskets”?
J: Well, well this is one of the reasons why Rowena Bradley’s basket is important to our museum:
I can go to Pier One and see a basket that I think, oh that looks really neat, or I might look at it and understand how it’s made and appreciate the work of the anonymous maker of it, so I, I, don’t--I don’t wanna, just because I don’t know the name of a person who made something doesn’t mean that it’s not admirable or interesting. But, the more we know about the things we encounter in the world, I think the richer our understanding of them would be.
I mean, this is true in art history, too, right? We might find the work by an impressionist painter engaging, but then when we learn about the life of the artist, our, sort of, appreciation of it might grow richer, and I think that’s true for all the kinds of things we encounter in the world.
C: So then is it, does it, then, begin with you just having a gut reaction to something (J: Oh) and then, the, the research comes later, or for you does it begin with the research. Like where does the beauty fall in your process?
J: This is going to be one of the big questions, I think, for all of Themester.
Different, um frames of mind, different traditions approach that very differently. I think that, as a human being I probably do have gut reactions devoid of context, but I belong to a scholarly tradition which would want to interrogate that response, and then, one, and try to figure out, well, if I think I’m reacting to something in the abstract, in a kind of direct encounter sort of way, with a sort of sense of surprise and wonder like-- I, I would want to enjoy that experience, but then I’d want to step back and try make sense of it: What kinds of covert, understandings or perceptions or knowledge am I bringing into that encounter that caused me to react in the way that I did? So that one kind of context is the, the overt sort of “discoverable” context but another one is the sort of biases and presuppositions and other kinds of understandings or misunderstandings that we bring with us.
Native American people know this very, very well because they live in a s--, in a set of circumstances in which non-Native perceptions of native culture, which are oftentimes based on stereotypes or misunderstandings, nonetheless really condition their interactions with the wider world, but they’re not alone in that. I think there’s all kinds of-- Well, we just live in a world where people are bringing stereotypes and misunderstandings into their encounters of the world.
C: So do you think— It sounds like you’re drawing on your training as a scholar and your research in a particular Native American context to think about beauty, so do you think that there was a time when your understanding of beauty changed?
J: Yeah, this is one of those, um, kinds of dynamics in which you have to be careful before you take an intro class in Folklore or Anthropology. I mean, I would urge everyone to do that, because I think that life on the other side of that introductory course is worth living. But it is also the case that it does change how things work for you, right?
I mean, if you worked in the film industry you wouldn’t watch movies in the same way that you do as a sort of everyday filmgoer. If you’ve worked for three years in the back of a fancy restaurant, your understanding of what restaurants are all about would be different, so this is kind of the occupational hazard.
In my case, the sort of, um, context-first obsession that I and some of my colleagues have, is, is a sort of outgrowth of the disciplinary work that we do. I’m interested, particularly, in understanding questions like beauty in a cross cultural way.
Actually folklore, in a way, is, um, is a discipline that’s particularly oriented towards beauty. Particularly in the way that the field has developed in the United States: It is about beauty. Its approach to beauty, in a way, is compensatory to the way that some other fields like philosophy and art history approach beauty.
C: So describe what you mean by compensatory.
J: Um, one way to think about this would be to say--to ask questions of, of all of the scholarly fields: what is their object of study and how do they generally approach that object?
If beauty, for instance, was a shared interest for the fields, let’s say, philosophy, art history, and folklore studies-- They each approach beauty in a different way, and there are other fields with an interest in beauty as well, that’s why Themester this year is so rich, right? All, so many disciplines can engage.
But, in the case of folklore studies, it’s compensatory in a couple of ways. One is that the field tends to look at the kinds of works and the kinds of expressions, which might or might not be characterizable as beautiful, or in which beauty might be at issue. We tend to look at those phenomenon that are outside of the concern, that are sort of off of the primary focus list for fields like art history or philosophy, to use my two neighboring examples.
Everyday aesthetics, for instance, have long been of concern to the field of folklore studies. The arts of people of modest means, which means the arts of the vast majority of humanity. The kinds of artistic and expressive activities, which get woven into everybody’s everyday life, right?
If you were to ask a, a sophomore walking across campus, “Are you an artist?” they probably, they might be an artist, but if they’re not, in some formal sense, they might sort of say, “Well no, why do you ask?” But if you ask, um, someone about, for instance, uh, for a special occasion, should you set the table, the dinner table in a certain kind of way, or did you give thought to the clothes that you chose for the birthday party you went to last weekend?
Everybody that I’ve ever met in the world, is--their daily lives are filled with aesthetic questions, but those are not always so overtly marked in the way that the, say, the music industry or the world of the art museum marks off some kinds of expressive activity as “special” and worthy of whole disciplines of attention, so that folklore is compensatory, in part, as a field of study, because it looks at the artistic aspects of the things that other fields are kind of, tend, tend to neglect. And that’s its special purpose in the world.
C: But, so, if you were to be in a Folkore 100 class and you came to your professor’s office hours asking them about folklore and beauty, what might they say? Would that, would that jar them, (J: Noooo) or would that--?
J: They would, they would love it.
So the first thing to, that the Folklore 101 instructor is gonna say is that for the field in which she or he works, a big consideration is local conceptions of beauty which are discoverable in particular cultural contexts. Now that’s not the only thing that a folklorist would do, but it’s, in some ways, a primary kind of mission, which is to understand the different ways of living in the world, including the different ways of living beautifully that exist in the world.
If you engage in that kind of work, over time you learn the fact that there are some similarities and differences that would be characteristic of different societies. That leads to two additional kinds of inquiry. One would be to try to make sense of the history that accounts for those differences: what has happened in the past that shapes the way in which that people approach beauty in the present? And, there’s a second, kind of, additional move, and that’s a kind of comparative one: What would we learn if we compared the different ways in which different peoples at different times in the world have approached beauty.
It could be that we start to learn that there are some overarching patterns that different groups of people share. They might share them for historical reasons because their traditions of beauty come from the same source. It might be religious, for instance, that having a Buddhist tradition has shaped the beauty concepts of two or three or four or however many different Buddhist societies.
It may be, on the other hand, that there are some kinds of concerns, which are just reoccurring in the human condition. Some early scholarship in folklore, for instance, pointed out that people in music, and in the graphic arts in many societies have an appreciation for rhythm.
So, if you look at Rowena Bradley’s basket, for instance, one way that you could characterize it is that it has a series of reoccurring motifs that are spaced apart from one another in a way that, in many societies, people would find kind of satisfying. This is like rhythm in music, but it’s rhythm in the visual arts as well.
So, it could be, that, tentatively, if we compare enough conceptions of beauty in enough different societies that we might start to discover some reoccurring patterns. But, those kinds of discoveries are sort of secondary to the one, which basically involves going out into the world and not presuming we know what’s beautiful, but instead asking other people what they think is beautiful.
J: A basket seems simple, but when I look at a basket, those are the kind of complicated contexts that I see present, or represented in it. So that, um, Rowena Bradley’s basket tells me about changing environmental conditions. Um, river cane was once abundant, and now it’s an endangered plant species. It tells me about changing ways of life in terms of things like farming. Her basket was the kind of basket that would be used to store corn seed, for instance. It tells me about how people live their lives and the ways in which their lives are changing. It tells me, for instance, about the ways in which the Cherokee people have become bound together with non-Cherokee people who are the main market for their arts today.
It’s like a bus station in which many, many different pathways are converging. And so, even though if we look at it on the table it seems like a relatively contained and simple thing, for me, the beauty of it stems from the fact that so many different aspects of life are present in it.
C: Woven together like the fibers of a basket
J: Yes, right, that’s a good metaphor.
C: So thank you so much for sharing your understanding of beauty with us today, and remind us where we can find the basket.
J: Well it will be back on display at the Mather’s Museum of World Cultures, and, the Mathers is on campus. You can find it at the corner of 9th and Indiana, just up the street from Yogi’s.