Design: The poetry of wicker and willow

There is an art as well as a craft to basket-making, and an exhibition of Scottish artefacts proves the point.
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The Independent Culture
Baskets have long been the Cinderellas of the crafts world. Unlike pots, jewellery or textiles, they lack a high profile either in smart commercial galleries, or - more crucially - in the minds of most collectors; they are just not seen as "proper" works of art. Defined by traditional methods of construction and use, be they domestic or industrial, the simple woven basket struggles to move beyond historical associations and a distinctly utilitarian image.

"Making Weaves: the basket-maker's art", an exhibition of 14 dynamic contemporary Scottish basket-makers, should help change that. It is the inaugural show of the National Museums of Scotland's new Craft Gallery, which is being unveiled tomorrow. For juxtaposed with baskets for logs, shopping and the like are more mysterious woven objects that push at the boundaries of what many would term a basket.

With its start-up costs funded by the Scottish Arts Council National Lottery Funds, the Craft Gallery's remit is to exhibit and promote contemporary craft in Scotland. "What Making Weaves has done is give people the opportunity to work towards specific pieces for an exhibition which they would otherwise not make," says Valerie Morris, the gallery's curator. "There's work here which could be considered experimental: experimental for the makers but also experimental for the audience who are going to view the baskets."

Take Valerie Pragnell's "Red Earth Pod Series" in the main foyer, leading in to the gallery, which throws down the gauntlet and challenges us to reassess our perceptions of what baskets are. Earthed in sand, the three roughly woven, asymmetric pods are obviously baskets but serve no discernible function. The swollen willow structures, plastered externally with red soil from the Borders, are coated inside with a pale mulch of paper and flax straw. For me they evoke the harsh landscape and way of life of the Australian outback.

Her "Wild Apple Basket" and "Blackthorn Basket" are both lacquered internally with purple-black Japanese paper. Smaller than the "Pod Series" and more regularly woven, they exude modernity, yet remain tied to the earth - without being in any conventional sense "organic" or "green".

Unusually for someone working in willow, Pragnell describes herself as a sculptor. Most people insist on the term "basket-maker" - emphasising the process and materials used over sculpture's focus on form and content.

The traditions of the craft are never too deeply hidden, no matter how contemporary the work. Lizzie Farey's random-weave balls and bowls are spun from willow, hazel, birch, ash, dogwood, larch and briar rose - often with their seed-heads still attached. They are crazily interwoven, airily or densely, in non-geometric patterns. But their exuberant, energetic forms all grow from bases constructed in exactly the same way as those for everyday shopping baskets.

In contrast to Pragnell's and Farey's large forms, Anna King's baskets are small enough to nestle in your hand. She sees her baskets as containers for ideas and secrets, and uses traditional coiling techniques with natural materials to create fantastically frivolous containers. "Hidey Hole" is made of coiled sisal stitched with raw linen thread, and decorated with downy feathers the colour of oatmeal. From around its narrow neck wave ethereal strands of horsehair. On another basket, "Hidden", pine needles bristle stiffly to attention around the rim, obscuring what lies within.

Sally McIntosh's "Spiky Baskets" have no obvious function either. Made from coiled and stitched raffia, covered with spiky projections, they resemble overgrown yet fragile chestnut seed-cases, although their muted heather tones suggest they may have beamed in from outer space.

There is nothing new in the idea of non-utilitarian baskets. For as long as baskets have been made, skilled workers have also made more refined, more highly decorated baskets for ceremonial purposes. What is new is that the making of a basket has become a search for individual expression, completely separate from the endless repetition and predictability that characterised traditional basket-makers.

Aptly, Laurence Coupland's gleaming straw kishie is the only basket in the show not made this year, and the only purely traditional basket. Kishies, used by crofters for carrying peat, seaweed or shopping on their backs are a classic example of a traditional basket where function dictates form. Coupland has been making them all his life, as part of the natural rhythm of his crofting life. It is probably the only basket on display where the maker knew exactly how it would look, and be used, before he started weaving. The kishie also typifies the power of a basket to summon up visions of a way of life unrelated even to the basket-maker.

Valerie Morris hopes that the exhibition will make people re-examine their perception of what a basket is.

"Modern basket-makers in Scotland are reacting to their own inspiration, their own need to express their own individuality, their passion for the material, their passion for the environment they are working in." This contemporary approach does not preclude the making of functional baskets, but it does require a shift in perspective from the viewer, not least in terms of value.

There are other baskets on display which are, at first glance, deeply traditional. Graham Glanville's fruit picker (made from green and Flanders red willow) and round log basket (in buff and green willow), and Trevor Leat's fitched oval shopper (Flanders red and white willow) and fitched wastepaper basket (black maul and white willow) are robust and functional, But the way they combine materials and weaves is anything but "traditional", creating baskets that demand to be categorised as objects of desire rather than as everyday containers.

Leat's and Glanville's respect for their materials is echoed in Lise Bech's zig-zag bowls and ball-shaped vessels - a vivid reminder of the many colours of natural willow. Her stylish baskets borrow shapes from the ceramics world, yet remain faithful to basketry traditions.

The exhibition also makes clear that Scottish basket-makers' admiration for the traditions of their craft still dominates their creative endeavours. Colour and materials are derived from hedgerows and the rural landscape. Unlike their contemporaries' work south of the Border, there is little experimentation with applied colour or synthetic materials. However, in exploring their craft, like many British basket-makers, they create beautiful, captivating objects which, for want of a better word, are called baskets.

`Making Weaves' runs from 15 August to 4 January 1999 at the Royal Museum, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, Mon, Wed-Sat 10am-5pm, Tues 10-8, Sun 12-5. Adults pounds 3/pounds 1.50, children free (details, 0131-247 4219). This is a selling exhibition; work can also be commissioned from individual makers via the museum. At the Edinburgh Festival, Artisan 98, with 155 arts and crafts makers and a series of free talks, runs 19-23 August at Cromdale Hall, Morrison Street, Edinburgh (0131-225 2059). `Threads', an exhibition of 60 works by 14 contemporary US basket-makers is at the Concourse Gallery, Barbican Centre, 29 August-30 September, 10am-7.30pm