Above-water basket weaving

A plethora of art from the Great Basin Basketmakers is on sale in Virginia City

“Weaver’s Harvest” by LaVerne Theis.

“Weaver’s Harvest” by LaVerne Theis.

Photo by Adrienne Rice

When I think of baskets, I first think of them in a utilitarian way: They are meant to carry Easter eggs or groceries or flowers. But the Great Basin Basketmakers also think of baskets in a different way. They think of them as art.

The group, which was founded by renowned local basketmaker Mary Lee Fulkerson in 1987, has dozens of its works of art on display in Weaving the Comstock at the Fourth Ward School in Virginia City. The display features dozens of different baskets. Big ones. Little ones. Cheap ones. Expensive ones. Beautiful ones. Ugly ones. They’re all there.

Many of these baskets are made to be looked at, never used. My favorite basket on display, “Weaver’s Harvest” by LaVerne Theis, looked flimsy, although it was quite beautiful. By far the biggest basket on display in the old classroom, it measures 25 inches by 44 inches by 31 inches.

But after examining the basket and even lifting it (I know it’s a serious breach of etiquette to man-handle works of art, but I figured it was a basket, not a painting, so what the heck), I discovered it probably couldn’t hold more than a few pounds.

But that’s OK. Its beauty more than makes up for its lack of utility. It invokes images of autumn—muted maroons, oranges, yellows and greens make up the basket’s color scheme—and it has a rough, natural, almost unfinished feeling. The grapevine, willow, dyed reeds and other materials that make up the work come together beautifully.

Another basket that worked for me was “Reaching—Antler Basket” by Billie Walker. It is one of a handful of Walker’s similarly shaped baskets on display, each with a slightly different color scheme. The thing that catches the eye about “Reaching” and its siblings is what their handles are made of: one side of a mule deer’s antlers. The handle on “Reaching” was once on the head of a nice four-point buck, for example.

The baskets themselves are shallow, elliptically shaped containers, made up of leather, reed, yarn, seagrass, vine and even mohair. The differing colors—cream, maroon and two different greens in the case of “Reaching"—run across the baskets in parallel stripes. They are beautiful works; Walker has clearly found a style that works for her.

One of the most eye-catching baskets on display was “Nevada—Silver and Blue” by Betty Hulse. But once it catches the eye, “Nevada—Silver and Blue” doesn’t know what to do with it. The small basket sits in the corner of the room across from the door, and its bright, metallic colors—they look like strips from an aluminum can—stick out amongst all the muted, natural hues. But upon closer inspection, the basket is terribly lopsided and chaotically woven. Wooden reeds mix in with the metallic strips without an established pattern, as if Hulse was in a serious hurry to finish the work.

Another eye-catching basket, with a more pleasing follow-through, is the humorously named “Gourd-Eous!” by Carolyn Bennett. Like the name implies, the basket is a hollowed out gourd. I don’t know specifically what kind of gourd it is made from—although a tag attached to the basket festively pronounced that “the gourd has been described as one of nature’s greatest gifts to mankind"—but its surface is smooth and beautiful. It looks like polished, fabricated, chocolate-brown wood. Iris leaves circle the basket’s opening, completing the look.

In addition to the baskets, the show also consists of an informative description of the different basket-making materials and methods along the walls. This fits in nicely with the mission of the Great Basin Basketmakers, which is to pass along the tradition of basket-making.

Weaving the Comstock made for quite an impressive show—even if it didn’t fit in with my utilitarian perceptions.