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Clara Neptune Keezer: A Legacy of Passamaquoddy Basket Making

 

Native American Passamaquoddy baskets by award-winning basket maker Clara Neptune Keezer will be on display at the Farnsworth Art Museum from October 19, 2003, to February 15, 2004. This exhibition of more than 50 examples of Keezer's intricate work is largely drawn from the collection of Carol Smith Fisher, who inherited a large collection of early fancy and utilitarian Passamaquoddy and Penobscot baskets from her grandfather. A champion for the preservation of this indigenous art form in general and Keezer's work in particular, Fisher's advocacy led to recognition of Keezer's artistry when, in 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Keezer a National Heritage Fellowship. The Farnsworth's exhibition also includes a small selection from Fisher's collection of traditional nineteenth-century Northeast Woodland Maine Indian baskets.

The centuries-old art of basket making includes clearly thought-out design, juxtaposing shape, color, line, texture and form; preparation and use of materials, such as brown ash and sweetgrass; and imparting the visual meaning of native tradition and creativity. Labor intensive preparations of the natural materials include gathering suitable specimens  supple sticks of brown ash and aromatic sweetgrass; pounding and separating and smoothing the ash sticks into splints; cleaning and drying the sweetgrass; then finally dying, weaving, twisting and pinching the materials into the elaborate and beautifully executed shapes and forms that give value to the baskets as both an art and a traditional craft. Keezer's baskets, in particular, have been described as showing "a mastery of composition and use of space, superb color use and great precision in the craftsmanship."

Keezer made her first basket at the age of eight and has worked towards perfecting and developing the art continuously since 1938. Brown ash and sweetgrass splint basketry has long been a traditional means of survival for the Passamaquoddy people. Ms. Keezer's parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all survived on the sale of the baskets they made. Using brown ash and sweetgrass, sometimes dyed brilliant colors, the family created large utilitarian baskets like backpacks and the so called "fish scale" baskets (used for transporting fish scales used in the production of nail polish) and "fancy" baskets for the tourist trade. Often sold door to door for a pittance, these decorative baskets are now highly prized objects in public and private collections of Native American art around the country.

To construct her baskets, Ms. Keezer purchases rough thick splints of brown ash (fraxinus nigra) from Micmac Indians from the north woods of Aroostook County, Maine, who are still able to harvest the now scarce brown ash tree. The "stick" is first pounded by the back of an axe until it loosens the growth rings. Ms. Keezer prepares all her own raw materials of "splints." She gauges, splits, smoothes, carves handles and dyes her splints with aniline dyes. She uses forms (blocks) handed down from her ancestors as well as forms of her own invention. The sweetgrass (hierochole borealis odorata) grows in salt-water marshes and is harvested by her son Rocky in July and August. It is then dried, cleaned and braided for decorative use.

A Maine Indian basket is a very special Maine State treasure and a time-honored indigenous tradition. When Keezer weaves a beautiful basket, she weaves not only a work of art, but also the heritage articulated by an ancient tradition of a culture's survival. She passes on to new generations a native tradition and creative process where the visual outperforms the verbal, using quiet observation and ingenuity to communicate her history. Keezer's sons Rocky and Kenny learned from their mother and are considered by many to be among the most talented "next-generation" basket makers in Maine. Understanding and appreciating ancient and ongoing Maine artistic traditions are central to the Farnsworth's mission, which charges the museum to contribute to a rich dialogue on Maine and American art throughout the centuries. The preservation and presentation of Maine's Indian basket making tradition through this exhibition of the work of Clara Keezer's exhibition at the Farnsworth Art Museum leads to a broader awareness of Maine's cultural diversity. This exhibition is supported in part by a New Century Arts and Humanities grant provided by the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Humanities Council.

 

Related events

In association with the "Clara Neptune Keezer: A Legacy of Passamaquoddy Basket Making" exhibition, a lecture by Carol Smith Fisher on the formation of her collection and the Neptune Family legacy of basket making will be held on Sunday, October 19, in the Farnsworth auditorium, at 2 p.m. Cost is $5 for members and $7 for non-members. Farnsworth members are invited to a special opening preview, also on Sunday, October 19, at noon, and to a members opening reception from 3 to 5 p.m. the same day.

"The History of Maine Indian Basket Making" will be the subject of a lecture by Jennifer Neptune on Sunday, November 9, at 3 p.m. A basket maker herself and manager of the Wabanaki Arts Center in Old Town, Maine, Neptune will examine the cultural and historical meaning of Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet tribal basket making in Maine, and she will highlight current efforts to continue the traditions. Again, cost is $5 for members and $7 for non-members.

Also on Sunday, November 9, from 1 to 3 p.m., a leading Passamaquoddy basket maker will demonstrate how to make "fancy" baskets from brown ash splints and sweetgrass. The demonstration will be free with museum admission.

Rev. 9/18/03 at request of Museum.

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