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January 16, 2013

Using twigs, feathers and grass, artists weave natural wonders

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

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Using twigs, feathers and grass, artists weave natural wonders
Dona Anderson’s “Crossing Over” was created out of bamboo kendo (martial arts sticks), thread and patterned paper. It’s part of “Green from the Get Go: International Contemporary Basketmakers” at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.

You could say the Visitor Center at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House has been taken over by a bunch of basket cases.

Artists with a background in basketry are part of the touring exhibit, “Green from the Get Go: International Contemporary Basketmakers,” which opened Jan. 12 and runs through March 10. The 50 works by 29 artists from nine countries — who hail from as far away as Japan and Australia — are made from renewable and sustainable resources, including linen, bamboo, emu feathers, willow, bark, leaves and tree branches. The exhibit is co-curated by Rhonda Brown and Tom Grotta, of browngrotta arts, and Jane Milosch, former curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery.

Although all of the artists in this exhibit have experience in basketry, their works are more sculptural than practical. These aren’t the types of baskets one might use to store towels or magazines.

“They’re really sculptors who happen to deal with basketry techniques,” Grotta said.

Brown said the artists in this show — who represent some of the best in the world in this field — are pushing the boundaries of the form.

“Traditional baskets are made out of natural materials,” she said. “What makes this group different is that they’re art baskets; they’re not functional. That’s what surprises people when they see the exhibit — the wide range of shapes, in addition to unexpected materials like feathers, porcupine quills, concrete (and) cockleburs.”

Grotta said there’s a lot to see with each piece.

“Being a photographer, I like the idea that the work is always different,” he said. “It’s dimensional from all sides. You see something new every time. It sort of evolves with light, with shadows.”

The curators felt that bringing “Green from the Get Go” to Metro Detroit during the North American International Auto Show would be a good fit, given the increasing emphasis automakers are placing on green technology.

“So many of our artists are interested in sustainability, interested in nature,” Brown said.  “And then there’s a recycling component to some of the pieces.”

One of the artists shreds her grandson’s broken hockey sticks — which are made out of bamboo — and uses them in her work, preventing them from ending up in a landfill, Brown said.

“They’re all bark people,” said Grotta. As an example, he said when in a car with American artist Dorothy Gill Barnes, you have to be ready to pull over at any time so she can fill up the trunk with twigs for a future piece.

Another artist Brown and Grotta work with makes her own paper from plants she grows in Sweden, Brown said.

Brown and Grotta — who are also a married couple — said they “fell in love” with pussy-willow baskets created by Finnish artist Markku Kosonen circa 1989 and held their first basket show that year. The Wilton, Conn.-based art dealers have been on a mission for more than the last 20 years to support this type of art and educate the public about it, with elaborate, informative catalogues featuring Grotta’s photos of the works serving as much as tabletop books as advertisements for the art.

“This was work that we liked, and we saw that we could actually do something to promote it,” Brown said.

She said the artists they work with are constantly evolving and coming up with pieces that are completely different from what they’ve done in the past. But even for the uninitiated, Grotta said there’s a “wow factor” when viewing these works.

“They’re very tactile,” he said. “It’s a very accessible art form. You want to get up close.”

This type of nonfunctional basketry was born circa the late 1950s with the work of American artist Ed Rossbach, who started using cardboard, newspapers and straw in his art and taught himself other techniques — such as bobbin lace-making — so that he could create bobbin lace out of plastic, Brown said. A number of artists in this exhibit were influenced by him, she said.

At least once a year, Brown said, they try to partner with a nonprofit, and this year they chose the Ford House.

Ford House Curator Josephine Shea said this is a good fit for the historic site, which was once home to the art- and nature-loving Fords.

“It speaks to nature as inspiration for art,” she said. “And, of course, it speaks to environmental conservation.”

During the run of the exhibit, there will be a number of special programs for children and adults, including a talk near the end by Milosch. Visitors are encouraged to come back as often as they like.

“It’s the kind of show you can spend a lot of time with,” Shea said. “Each time you come back, you’ll see new things.”

The Ford House is located at 1100 Lake Shore, between Vernier and Nine Mile roads. The exhibit is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is by donation. For more information, call (313) 884-4222 or visit www.fordhouse.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1047.