Bean basket, asparagus basket, tomato basket, cucumber basket.
Baskets for picking and baskets for selling: each individual
to its contents and task.
|Photo of the artist by Tony Avila.
Growing up on a farm in western Massachusetts,
surrounded by baskets for everyday use, Arlene McGonagle took
no particular notice of them. In her 30s, however, while traveling
with her husband in Florida, she happened upon a course in
Appalachian mountain basketry being taught in an orange grove.
She watched and wove for a week. And inaugurated a sustaining
Advancement of McGonagle's techniques engendered
invitations to teach; she shared her vocabulary of functional
baskets augmented with dyed reeds and natural materials. Ongoing
studies embraced Nantucket baskets, and her skills in this
heritage fostered a reputation in the basketmaking field.
She was president of the Northeast Basketmakers Guild from
1992 to 1994, yet started to feel that she wanted more than
making, selling at craft shows, and teaching. In 1995, she
applied to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts,
Dartmouth; after a preparatory year of foundation classes,
she was accepted into the M.F.A. in Artisanry program.
McGonagle saw grad school as an opportunity to
broaden her design skills. Her studio work - her baskets -
became self-expressive; they were about security, the life-and-death
issues we deal with daily, and safety. The latter manifested
itself in baskets with nests. She expanded her knowledge of
fiber techniques and, along with the required academic courses,
took women's studies. Her exposure to feminist thinking and
art had significant consequences. McGonagle volunteered at
a women's shelter, which influenced the content of several
baskets. She reflects that the linen-wrapped hardware cloth
in some of her pieces is a metaphor for women (a soft appearance
with a firm, resilient structure).
|Lines of Verse, 2001; wire, silk and kyosei-shi paper,
knotted waxed linen; 9 by 8 by 8 inches. Photo: James
Lines of Verse exemplifies McGonagle's
nestlike forms and was inspired by an exhibition theme of
"lines." The text that appears inside the inner chamber and
spews from it is from Emily Dickinson's Acts of Light.
To honor the poet, the words are written on silk paper. Dickinson
not only provided the concept for the piece, she influenced
its outcome. McGonagle wrote the script on a light box, and
the concentration and exclusion of all else conjured Dickinson's
essence. This private interaction prompted the placement of
writing only on the inside of the vessel, but the lines' enduring
influence on McGonagle and others is visualized as a timeless
Recent explorations have eliminated the hardware
cloth to allow the woven components (paper, metal) to stand
alone. Incorporated with the structural forms is Peruvian
pickup weaving: the cotton offers complementary and contrasting
color and texture.
McGonagle maintains a studio as a professional
basketmaker in Warren, Rhode Island, and teaches at a community
college. The uniqueness of baskets in her childhood have sown
a bountiful harvest.
-- D Wood
D Wood is a freelance writer specializing in