Weaving hard work and history: Basket-makers rely on knowledge passed down over years
DULUTH - It was like a Norman Rockwell painting. Four people hoisted a large log onto their shoulders. Through the snow, they trudged about 100 feet from a ground-level workshop to a Congdon Park driveway.
There, in steady pulls, Mark Boyce traced the log with a two-handed carving tool called a drawknife. Bark flew off in chunks, layers and bits. “This will keep you very warm,” he said of the physical process.
Next, he pounded a log with a blacksmith hammer to separate the layers. Then, he made smooth and crackling sounds using a carpet knife to strip long splints of the log.
“This is right in the middle of the growth year,” he said, holding it with a smirk. “Look at that material.”
These are early steps in Boyce’s decades-long hobby of basket-weaving.
“He makes it look really easy, but it’s actually arduous,” said Kelsey Jones-Casey of Duluth.
She grew up in the same neighborhood as Boyce, who was always outside pounding logs, the Duluth woman said. From tree harvest to weaving, Boyce taught her and her husband, Ryan, how to craft handmade pack baskets.
This spring, the couple, along with Boyce and several others, harvested a log near Stoney Point, and it was a community effort. “Right where the log was felled, we just set up shop in the woods,” said Ryan Jones-Casey.
There were many hands that touched the process, even if they didn’t make a basket, and 95 percent of the work is pounding and stripping the log, she said.
It took a lot more time than they anticipated; the long process nurtures a relationship between you, nature and community, Kelsey Jones-Casey said. “The reward is not the basket, but the accomplishment of working with a tree and getting to know the wood.”
Working through each layer, each year in the tree’s life, Jones-Casey considered what was happening in the world 15, 20 years ago as the tree was maturing.
“When you’re stripping it, there’s a tendency to want to make it perfect and have all the lines exactly the same, so it’s easier to weave. But it does what it wants to do, so you have to follow the wood,” she said.
Holding her pack, she noted that it’s a little off-center. Looking at it, you can’t tell.
She’d like to make another one with splints in different sizes, and while she has learned a lot from Boyce, basket-weaving is a process that’s almost impossible without a mentor. Boyce’s intuition about working with wood takes a lot of time to learn, and she’s just scratched the surface.
Boyce has been at it for more than 30 years. It’s a hobby that started with his father when he “missed a deer” during hunting season.
“We cut that tree down and started making baskets,” he recalled. He started with a basket kit, and today, he has numerous books and projects to show for it. He’s also a member of North Shore Basket Guild, a group of area weavers who host monthly events in Duluth. We’re all students at some point; we develop a procedure and we teach, Boyce said.
He recently teamed up with guild member Erik Heen to teach an independent, months-long class. “He’s the Yoda of black ash,” Heen said.
Black ash is a species of tree prevalent in northern Minnesota, and it’s always been a go-to in Boyce’s projects.
No other species allows you to separate the growth rings. As long as it’s grown thick enough, the physiology of it makes it possible to work with, said Kyle Gill, a guild member and full-time forester at Cloquet Forestry Center.
Boyce gets his black ash from a friend’s property. In exchange, he gives them his works. The latest: a bassinet.
You can see Boyce’s work throughout his Congdon Park home. He'll even direct you to pieces — in bathroom and kitchen cabinets are handmade wares that fit perfectly on the shelves.
In his workshop hang old saws and wood clamps above a table with several new projects fashioned to wooden molds with rubber bands.
Long black ash splints rest in a pail of water. They'll sit there anywhere from an hour to overnight, to prepare for molding.
Standing in his workshop, Boyce wore a basket guild apron with his name on it. He’s soft-spoken and knowledgeable, noting wood elements like cambium, xylem cells, radio grains.
He also has a dry humor, light-heartedly attributing a tip to “the grouse authorities.”
After an hour of several visitors and active log work, he seems most serene twisting small splints through each other — and teaching you how, too.
There are different types of weaves, some without a shape or form. Some with tighter or more open bottoms, used for the market or berry picking, so dirt can sift through.
He gives his shavings to a friend for kindling. He makes finger-sized baskets out of the smaller bits of wood; his table was lined with miniatures with blue and red accents.
Angling a long splint through tall spokes on a wooden mold, Boyce said he does break pieces mid-weave “all the time.” But it’s part of the craft that you come to expect, he said.
“Rather than bending the basket, it bends you.”
If you go
What: Next North Shore Basket Guild meeting
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 9; second Saturday of the month October through April
Where: 410 N. Arlington Ave.
How much: $10 for annual membership; nonmembers get one free class, paid members are given preference if there is a class limit.