Upon the closing of Traditional Basketry and Beyond: Steven R. Carty an exhibition on view at Peters Valley’s Sally D. Francisco Gallery from March 19-April 23 , 2023, we wanted to share this essay, written by artist and friend of Peters Valley, Daryl Lancaster. An excerpt from this essay was included in a take-away brochure at the gallery during the show. Here is the extended version. We hope you enjoy!
Steven R. Carty learned basket weaving using traditional basketry materials from his mother, award winning basket maker Mary Carty, at a young age. But it wasn’t until he discovered the celebrated herbalist, folklorist, naturalist, philosopher and basket maker Doug Elliott that he found beauty and the challenge of foraged materials.
This exhibition features 13 of Carty’s containers or vessels, not all are considered baskets in the traditional sense, if one defines basketry as a weaving or twining technique. The stark contrast of the naturally foraged materials against the whitewashed walls of the gallery gives definition to each piece, allowing undistracted study of the subtle pattern surfaces of the bark or other components.
Carty spends many days seasonally, foraging for native trees, and more importantly invasive species. In fact, much of his foraging is turning towards harvesting invasive species like wisteria, though the invasive wild grape vine, a mainstay of basket makers for decades, is becoming threatened by the Spotted Lanternfly.
Carty uses simple tools, many of which are on display in cases in the gallery. Foraging technically requires only a sharp knife, as indigenous/First Nation peoples used in their practices of gathering materials from nature. In fact, according to Carty, the materials for each of the baskets/containers in the exhibition could have been foraged using only a knife; but Carty yields to more helpful tools, like cutters, hand saws and a draw knife to relieve some of the stress that foraging for a living can do to the body.
Carty explains that though he must kill a tree—typically hickory, brown ash, or tulip poplar— he takes land management and stewardship of the forests, specifically his native Pine Barrens in Southern New Jersey, ancient Lenape lands, very seriously. He will only take a tulip poplar or hickory tree in a grove or tight cluster to help thin and allow other trees to grow stronger with the available light and nutrients. He takes advantage of areas of growth that will be destroyed when land is sold to be cleared for development. And of course, removing invasive species helps the natural world and protects native plants. He is keenly aware of climate change and sees its effects all around. He is shifting more of his foraging focus on invasive species to help protect what is left of the native plants and species.
When looking at each piece in the exhibition, it is impossible to really understand that each basket or container represents only a small percentage of the effort of its creation. A table in the exhibition shows some of the gathered materials: a length of tulip poplar, some wisteria vines, and other favorite materials. Wisteria vines are an extremely invasive species with a short shelf life; once harvested, they must be used within the year, otherwise it becomes too brittle. The wisteria can be stripped of its bark, which can be used for making cordage. Carty makes his own cordage by twisting and plying the paper-thin stripped bark from vines as thin as ¼”. His favorite plant for making cordage is dogbane, a perennial also known as Indian Hemp, which is poisonous if ingested and can only be harvested in the late fall. Carty’s seasonal calendar is marked and controlled by what can be harvested safely and when.
His bark containers are especially intriguing, as careful overnight soaking is necessary for the bark sheets to lay flat. An oval shaped scoring in the middle of the length of the bark allows the single sheet to fold creating a bottom and two sides. The bark surface, along with all its imperfections shows nature as its truest self. Carty takes complete advantage of those imperfections. Knot holes and natural striations and cracks are used for lashing to hold the hickory bark container in place. All the holes for lashing, if they aren’t there already from imperfections in the bark, are created with a knife, no drills or electric tools are used in either foraging or creating Carty’s vessels.
One of the most impressive pieces is a very tall vessel, from Tulip poplar bark, with hickory lashing, and a brown ash rim and internal supports. His mother, Mary, made a connection with the Passamaquoddy Tribe, a First Nations People from Maine, who use Brown Ash for their renowned ash baskets. Growth rings of the Brown Ash will split off from the round of the cut tree to create the perfect rim for some of Carty’s containers.
Each container in this exhibition represents a beautiful marriage of materials, including both native and invasive. Carty takes advantage of each material’s characteristics, including the hair-like rootlets left intact as the runners in baskets such as the one pictured below. It is supported with shaved Tulip Poplar staves that also form the complex woven rim. The cordage is from shaved wisteria bark.
Another vessel is created entirely of solid hickory including the lashing and rim. It takes advantage of the reverse side of the bark, with a beautiful tiger stripe surface. Listening to the materials and allowing them to guide shape and function is one of Carty’s strengths. Carty and his materials work closely as a team.
There is a simplicity in Carty’s shapes and construction that contrasts sharply to the efforts involved in foraging, harvesting, drying, stripping, storing and rewetting natural materials. Carty teaches foraging and basket making techniques to many different types of groups, at places like Peters Valley School of Craft, historical groups, naturalist groups, and reenactment organizations that want to go back and learn techniques that modern technology has all but wiped out.
Carty continues to explore and develop a symbiotic relationship to the natural world, as he ponders the idea that bark can be edible; could someone make a vessel or container from slippery elm or wild sarsaparilla that could ultimately be pounded down and eaten in an apocalyptic setting? This exhibition is more than 13 baskets and a few tools. This exhibition explores our roots, acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples’ skills which have mostly been lost, and the most basic need of mankind, to contain something. Carty has become a folklorist, naturalist, philosopher, herbalist and basket maker in his own right preserving traditions and teaching those traditions to others.