The “home town” featured in Ben and Erin Napier’s hit show on HGTV, Laurel, Mississippi, is also the home of a treasure trove of American Indian basketry.
When a Native basket rage swept across the United States between 1890 and 1912, Catherine Marshall Gardiner caught the bug. Considered the golden age of basket collecting, the period saw Gardiner amass one of the country’s most significant collections in her small town of Laurel, Mississippi.
Her charm, financial resources, and enjoyment of travel and an eye for the finest and the culturally significant brought her into the upper echelons of collectors. In 1923, Gardiner gave nearly 500 baskets of beauty and broad tribal representation to the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in her Mississippi hometown. Named for a great-nephew of hers who died tragically young, the museum today counts the baskets as the impressive centerpiece of its fine-art collections.
“It has been a work of great charm, and it would be impossible to make as good a collection today,” Gardiner once said. She had planned to focus on contemporary weavers, but “the lure of old and fine work specimens soon gained the ascendancy.”
Highlights of the collection are by both named and unknown artists; their diversity demonstrates Gardiner’s dedicated search to gather work from as many tribes as possible.
She began close to home with her Mississippi Choctaw neighbors. One prized object is a fish trap woven by a Choctaw, made ca. 1880 – 1910 by strong, probably male, hands. The ancient double basket form is plaited of thick hickory or white oak splints.
The basket makers of the Chitimacha Nation’s reservation, on Bayou Teche near Charenton, Louisiana, included famed weaver Christine Paul, who was married to longtime chief Benjamin Paul and whose work is represented here. The collection includes six of Paul’s finely woven, double-twill nesting swamp cane baskets in traditional colors and patterns. When Paul’s husband died in 1934, it was revealed that she needed to make baskets “to buy a tombstone for Ben’s grave. I want to put one if I can before I die.”
Collector Charles P. Whitcomb sold several pieces by California Pomo weavers to Gardiner, including nine feather gift baskets, universally recognized as fine art. One of them took Eastern Pomo weaver Alice Waris three years to complete. It required her to trap some 300 acorn woodpeckers in order to use their tiny red crop feathers to fully cover the coiled basket; added decoration includes 210 quail plumes as rim accents. Also featured in the collection are a coiled basket encircled with feathers from six bird species, quail plumes, and white clamshell disk beads by an unknown member of the She-nal-Kia Tribe (Eastern Pomo); and three miniatures by Central Pomo weaver Joseppa Dick.
The Cahuilla weaver whose story Helen Hunt Jackson fictionalized and made famous in her novel Ramona was in real life named Ramona Lubo, and her work sold under the name Ramona. Basket collector and popular lecturer George Wharton James knew Ramona and engaged her to weave for Gardiner a duplicate of the star basket pictured in the Ramona book. He sold it to her for $50 and had it shipped to Mississippi, where the rare basket sits today among the other treasures at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.
Among the California baskets, the museum’s Kumeyaay coiled tray woven around 1880 catches the eye for its artistic design and symmetry. The unnamed artist wove the tray in the midst of great turmoil as the Southern California Kumeyaay were being forced on to reservations. California nurseryman Carl Purdy purchased the exceptionally beautiful basket in the early 1900s and sold it five years later to Gardiner. The natural variegated golden color of the tray’s juncus rush is accented with dyed black stems to make it “one of the most visually striking in the collection,” wrote Joyce Herold, emeritus curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Natural History.
Southwestern baskets in the Gardiner collection include a bottleneck granary jar made for the tourist trade by an unknown woman from the White Mountain Apache tribe. Remarkable for its enormous size, tight coils, and design of human and dog or coyote figures, the jar displays the rare double coiling method that speeds the basket making.
Another unnamed artist represented in the collection is the Micmac weaver, likely in Maine or Quebec, who produced an artistically excellent quilled birch-bark box for the tourist trade between 1840 and 1880. The closely woven porcupine quills — made pliable and soft by putting the quills in the maker’s mouth and then dragging them between the teeth to flatten them — gleam in intricate geometric patterns. With a design in her mind’s eye, the artist used an awl to create holes for the quills. A lid of spruce roots lashed together and tied with thread rests on top of the box.
The Gardiner collection boasts a piece by California Wiyot master basket weaver Elizabeth Hickox — a black and yellow trinket basket with a dramatic background of black maidenhair fern. Hickox lived in the forested area along the Klamath River in Northern California among the Karok people, where she made about five pieces a year, creating her famed basketry from hazel shoots, white bear grass, black maidenhair fern, and dyed porcupine quills. Created ca. 1911 – 1915, this basket shows her superfine weaving, use of brilliant colors, and distinctive knobbed lid. Art collector Grace Nicholson helped Gardiner secure the basket and wrote, “This is made by the best weaver of the tribe and is the finest work ever produced.”
Businesswoman Henrietta Hamilton collected and sold Aleutian Island baskets — known for their strength and beauty — from her store in Seattle. She sent Gardiner a treasure basket made in 1904 by an unknown Unangan artist from Atka, Alaska. A geometric marvel of twined dune grass colored by silk threads, “it is a great rarity and much better in design and color than anything I have seen for a long time,” Hamilton said.
The collection also has an exceptional rain hat by Haida weaver Isabella Edenshaw. While raising a family and working in canneries, Edenshaw still managed to collect materials and weave every day. She sold her spruce root-woven rain hats to buy necessities for her family. Recognized by the four distinct weaving techniques she used with a four-strand braid as a brim finish, her hats were painted with traditional Northwest Coast designs by her husband, the well-known artist Charles Edenshaw.
The late Choctaw chief Phillip Martin praised Catherine Marshall Gardiner as a collector because she understood the importance of basketry to Native American tribes and had an eye for their distinctive beauty. Whether the baskets were practical everyday items like a fish trap or more decorative, her collection stood out, he said, because “artistry is evident in every piece.”
If You Go
The design of the museum allows for close viewing of the Native baskets’ exquisite detail, patterns, and textures. While the exhibition space was being modernized in 2005, curators studied the baskets. The resulting scholarship is the basis for the collection catalog, By Native Hands. The museum’s gift shop sells the book as well as baskets by contemporary Choctaw weavers. If you go, you might time your visit to the annual museum-hosted Choctaw Days. Don’t miss the micro-mini basket drawer. For more information on the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, visit lrma.org.
Photography: Images courtesy the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art
From our August/September 2020 issue.