Consider the basket.For thousands of years, people have used them to carry, haul and store countless items, from life-giving grain to romance-inducing flowers. And now, in the 21st century, even as we send probes throughout the solar system and beyond, no one has improved upon its basic design since civilization first appeared in the rich land by the Euphrates River. Like the humble sewing needle, baskets still are serving mankind in much the same way they always have.
Billy Malone of the Tri-Lakes area north of Columbia City has considered baskets. A retired senior illustrator for the Magnavox Co. and author of a book about methods of lashing handles to rims of baskets, Malone has spent the last 13 years or so learning to make baskets of various kinds. His work will be on display at the Allen County Public Library, 900 Webster St., Fort Wayne, through Sept. 17.
From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. September 9 and 10, Malone will be on hand to demonstrate and discuss basket weaving techniques. Malone shapes and carves most of the components he uses to make his baskets.
The library’s exhibit will feature traditional Nantucket baskets and purses made of mahogany, cherry, walnut and ash, along with other baskets such as antler, tapestry double-wall, shoulder purses, oval, melon bowl, wicker, tote, shaker, wine bottles and creel.
Didn’t know there were so many baskets in the world, did you? Well, as Neil Young once sang, turn off your MTV and get down to the library for a glimpse into a craft that emerged even before Britney Spears.
“In my book, I wrote about King Tutankhamen (circa 1366 BCE) who rested on a rush-woven chair. They found a split-reed chair in his tomb. The Egyptians used baskets to store their grain. They would dig pits and line them with basket works and fill them with grain. Baskets have been found in mummy cases,” Malone said.
The 30 or so baskets that will be on display at the library may be the direct descendants of ancestors found in Egyptian tombs, but they have distinctly modern looks and uses.
The Nantucket technique, of which Malone has become most fond, is a mold-woven basket, unlike most baskets, which are formed by hand. In other words, the staves and other components are molded around a wooden object something like an old hat block. Hard woods are always used, usually oak or cherry, although Malone has used mahogany and zebrawood.
Most of the baskets at the library’s exhibit will be of the Nantucket variety. Of course, there’s a story involved with the Nantuckets, as well.
According to Malone, the baskets were first developed in the early 19th century aboard lightships anchored off the shoals near Nantucket Island. Because these shoals and sandbars extended as far as 30 miles into the ocean, lightships were used instead of lighthouses to warn whaling ships. It seems the sailors had a lot of time on their hands and not much to do, besides raising and lowering lamps. They took up scrimshaw – the carving of ivory – and basket making.
As the whalers had to travel further for their prey, they brought back cane from the Orient. The basketmakers learned to weave the cane around the hardwood staves. The Nantucket basket was born.
“It’s known as the Cadillac of baskets,” Malone said. After the materials are acquired, it takes him about two weeks to make one Nantucket basket.
If he sold one, which he normally doesn’t, the best of his Nantuckets has been appraised at $3,000. Others would fetch $800 to $900. Don’t get your hopes up. Most will go to family members.
Malone said he was drawn to his craft by his love of “detail and precision.” As a senior illustrator for Magnavox, he spent years producing intricate technical drawings for the company’s publications. When he retired and starting spending winters with his wife, Ruth, in Nokomis, Florida, he wandered into a basket shop and became intrigued. Or, as he put it, “My brains fell out and I thought, ‘man, I’ve got to do this.’”
Within five years, he had written and published his book, which has sold at least 1,000 copies. New Lashings and Improvements to Old is available through libraries in Fort Wayne, Columbia City and Churubusco.
Malone has found a reliable source for the hardwoods he uses with an Indiana dealer in exotic woods. When he’s not spending winters in the Florida sun, he makes the 60-mile drive for his supplies. He buys boards of wood, cuts them, and puts the pieces on a router to form an edge. He also cuts slabs for the 1/16th-inch staves, soaks them and bends them around the form. Handles are sanded, soaked overnight and bent to the right size and form. Once dry, they stay that way, by god. In all, Malone said he has created some 50 baskets, “not as many as you would think.”
Although Malone honed his instincts for the aforementioned detail and precision through technical drawing, he began his education with formal art training at the Academy of Art in Chicago after graduating from high school in Columbia City. After moving to California and two tours of duty as an able-bodied seaman in the Merchant Marines, Malone returned to Indiana where he went to work at Farnsworth Electronics in Fort Wayne, the company owned by the tragic figure Philo T. Farnsworth, credited as the father of modern television.
With his art training, Malone on several occasions was called into Farnsworth’s office to prepare technical drawings that Farnsworth used in lectures and during television appearances. Farnsworth eventually was bludgeoned into obscurity by David Sarnoff, head of RCA, and is largely forgotten by the public now addicted to his invention, but Malone said it was a “thrill” to meet the great man.
After five years with Farnsworth, Malone went on to work for 33 years at Magnavox, as the senior illustrator in the publications department.
In 1999, Malone was honored by having one of his baskets chosen for a national exhibit of baskets at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. A juried exhibit sponsored by the Handweavers Guild of America, the show featured baskets by 37 basketmakers from around the United States. Malone’s “Whale of a Basket,” contemporary Nantucket Purse, was chosen from among hundreds of entries. It will be part of the exhibit at the Allen County Public Library.
“Whale of a Basket” has a mother whale and her youngster attached to the top, carved from basswood (“basswood is the carver’s friend; it’s soft and it doesn’t chip,” Malone said). The basket can be used as a strap purse and has a latch in the shape of an anchor, carved from corian countertop material, a sort of pseudo marble.
Malone teaches Nantucket weaving techniques at the Woven Spirit Basketry in Nokomis. In Florida, he’s also won several best of show awards in an annual state exhibit sponsored by the Venetian Society of Basketweavers.
As a one-man show at the Allen County Public Library, Malone hopes to elicit some of the same response he first had upon wandering into that Florida shop many years ago.
“People enjoy basket exhibits. I’m just trying to arouse more interest in the hobby. You go to an exhibit and you get inspired. You think, ‘That’s a good idea, I could do that.’ ”
Or, you can just admire the talent and patience of a master basketmaker such as Billy Malone.