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Arts and Entertainment

August 9, 2013

Two centuries of baskets to be on display at Fenimore

The Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown will presents “Plain and Fancy: Native American Splint Baskets,” an exhibition of baskets spanning two centuries. The art of ash splint basketry is a synthesis of form and function. The exhibition will opens Saturday and run through Dec. 29.

The exhibition includes more than 30 baskets from the 1800s to the present day. Ash splint basketry ranges in form and decoration from practical storage and market baskets to fanciful and exquisitely designed artworks. Basket makers incorporate numerous design elements, such as a variety of weaves: checker, wicker, twill, and hexagonal plaiting. Artists also use sweetgrass and curled splints to embellish their baskets. Other design elements include dyes, stains and paint. Domes, triangles, dots or leaves are hand-painted or stamped with a carved potato, turnip, cork or piece of wood.

The diversity of shapes and sizes produce unique and purposeful artwork that function as decorative and utilitarian objects used in day-to-day life. Recent baskets include some that mimic a pineapple, strawberry and ears of corn, according to a media release from the museum.

The production of ash splint basketry was popular among Native peoples in the mid-18th century, gaining momentum in the 19th. Basket makers sold their wares door to door and through trade catalogs, as well as at shops, markets and trading posts frequented by tourists and travelers. In the later part of the 19th century, the Victorian fondness for elaboration encouraged makers to embellish their baskets with elegant handles, decorative weaves, dyed splints, and sweetgrass, the media release said.

Native men and women collaborate in preparing splints from ash trees, and there are both male and female basket artists. Methods employed today are very similar to those practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries. Where basketry was once learned predominantly in the home, Native communities now teach the techniques in schools and at tribal museums and community centers to ensure that the art form continues.

The Fenimore Art Museum is borrowing baskets from the Ralph T. Coe Foundation for the Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., for the exhibit.

The Fenimore Art Museum is at 5798 Route 80 in Cooperstown. For more information about the museum, hours and admission, visit

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