Gourd Art and Antler Baskets by Susan Ashley

People often ask me how I learned to make handwoven antler baskets and gourd art. I took my first basket weaving class while on vacation in North Carolina in 1983. After making a seriously ugly basket, I did see endless possibilities. I joined a local basket guild in the DFW area and started going to annual basket weaving conventions in Michigan. During the 1990's, those conventions were very large (over 1,000 weavers). At each convention, I looked for opportunities to learn about different methods and materials. Studying with well-known weavers from all over the country (and even one from Russia), I gained experience weaving with reed, rattan, willow, birch bark, elm bark, cedar bark, black ash, iris leaves, ribbon, paper, leather, sea grass, and even copper. The great thing about basketry is the endless variety of materials and potential shapes.

As I continued to learn, I found myself drawn to the Appalachian style of ribbed basketry. They seem to come naturally to me. My heritage is Scottish/Irish and I grew up in Appalachia, so maybe there is some collective memory in my genes. I have branched out to embrace pine needle basketry, since we moved to a home surrounded by pine trees. My other main weaving pursuit is coiling on the rim of gourds. One year in Michigan I took a class for weaving on gourds and really loved that. Working with gourds is a power tool opportunity, so that's really fun (but a respirator and eye protection are always necessary). I look like Darth Vader when I'm cutting and cleaning gourds! Hours of prep work is required before a gourd is ready for the final step of weaving the rim. I love the variety of efforts that go into making gourd art. It's not only the weaving, but the cutting, drilling and finishing techniques that have to be mastered.

Another year in Michigan, I learned to make an antler basket. Antlers are very tricky to work with. Not only is each shape unique, but the weight of the antler makes the design a physics problem. Achieving balance is crucial or the piece will be top-heavy and roll over. I love the challenge of figuring out the best way to use each antler.

Now that I have retired from my day job as a systems analyst, I can dedicate my time to my passion for this art form. What started for me as a very left-brain activity - meticulously following patterns and using a protractor to make sure all the angles were correct - has developed to a point where each piece is unique. I don't always know what the end result will be until it happens. I select my color scheme and materials and just start in some direction and see what develops.