Exhibition Showcasing Contemporary American Basketry Opens at Renwick Gallery Oct. 4

August 26, 2013
News Release
Krupa - "Old Fashioned Egg Basket"

The exhibition “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” explores the revival of traditional basketry in America during the past 50 years through works by 63 contemporary basketmakers. Made between 1983 and 2011, the 105 baskets on display demonstrate the endurance of indigenous, African and European basket-weaving traditions in the United States as well as interpretations of the craft by individual makers. The exhibition will be on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum from Oct. 4 through Dec. 8.

The exhibition celebrates the gift of 79 baskets to the museum by the noted collectors Martha G. Ware and Steven R. Cole, and the promised gift of 20 more. The gift more than doubles the museum’s collection of contemporary baskets, making it one of the leading public collections of this craft. Nearly all of the works in the exhibition will be on public display for the first time. Nicholas R. Bell, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator of American Craft and Decorative Art, organized the exhibition.

“The marvelous collection assembled by Steven Cole and Martha Ware introduces to the museum not only an extraordinary group of objects, but also a new complement of makers,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “The Renwick Gallery is the ideal venue for showcasing these works of individuals reviving one of our country’s most deeply rooted craft traditions.”

The basketmakers represented in the exhibition work almost exclusively with undyed native materials—grasses, trees, vines and bark—that they have gathered by hand. Many cite gathering and preparing materials as steps that are as important to their process as weaving and acts that connect their finished products to the surrounding environment.

“In their search for materials, basketmakers cultivate an enviable knowledge of the land,” said Bell. “Each basket crafted from this knowledge provides not only a deep connection to place, but also a measure of the earth.”

The varieties of basket forms on display, from those made for harvest and market to sewing, laundry and fishing creels, reveal the importance of baskets in the everyday lives of generations of Americans before the market for handmade vessels declined. The featured baskets range from traditional styles to designs reflecting the distinct interpretations of their makers.

A 10-minute film, produced by basketmaker Billy Ray Sims, whose work is included in the exhibition, will be shown continuously in the exhibition galleries. The film, by River Breeze Creative, features interviews with basketmakers Jo Campbell-Amsler, Anne Scarpa McCauley, Cynthia Taylor, Aaron Yakim, Lynette Youson, Stephen Zeh and Jennifer Heller Zurick.

Public Programs

Bell will present a talk about the exhibition Friday, Oct. 4, at noon, followed by an open house and book signing with the artists. Featured basketmaker Leon Niehues will discuss his craft in a gallery talk Sunday, Oct. 13, at 2 p.m. A panel discussion on the conservation of baskets will be held Friday, Oct. 18, at 1:30 p.m. Gallery talks by Bell and Cole are scheduled for Monday, Oct. 21, at noon and Thursday, Nov. 7, at noon. For additional information on these and other exhibition-related programs, including a series of basket-making demonstrations, visit americanart.si.edu/calendar.


The exhibition catalog is written by Bell, with a foreword by Henry Glassie, College Professor Emeritus of Folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington. The book is distributed by the University of North Carolina Press and will be available for purchase ($49.95 hardcover) in the Renwick Gallery store and on the museum’s website, americanart.si.edu.


“A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” is organized by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The James Renwick Alliance and Margot Heckman generously support the exhibition. Additional support for the accompanying exhibition film was provided by the National Basketry Organization and Wonder Laboratories.

About the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrates the vision and creativity of Americans with artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries. The museum’s branch for craft and decorative art, the Renwick Gallery, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. Metrorail station: Farragut North (Red line) and Farragut West (Blue and Orange lines). Follow the museum on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Flickr, ArtBabble, iTunes and YouTube. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Website: americanart.si.edu.   

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Courtney Rothbard

(202) 633-8496 


Laura Baptiste

(202) 633-8494