Mary Lee Fulkerson
Mary Lee Fulkerson is in her studio, a free-standing building next to her house in the Juniper Hills neighborhood, trying to get an 8-inch-high structure made of woven hog gut to stand up.
“It’s slimy when you work with it,” says the artist, an energetic 69-year-old, wearing a salmon-colored T-shirt, slightly messed work apron and Birkenstocks. Once it’s dry, it looks like stiff, rubber-band-colored plastic. Mastering the slippery material she buys from the butcher is one of basketry artist’s latest projects.
Basketmaking can be easy, she says. She jokes about the medium’s reputation as the quintessential blow-off class. But, considering some of Fulkerson’s ambitiously large works (she once wove an 8-foot-tall Lady Luck), it’s only as easy as you want it to be.
“You don’t have to make practical, utilitarian baskets,” she says. Fulkerson likes traditional basketry materials just fine, but she’s also a formally trained sculptor with a strong experimental streak, as evidenced by stacks and rolls of various materials on big, industrial shelves in her studio. Coconut fiber, sea grass, snakeskin, deer bones and the yucca growing in her yard are among the things she weaves into her creations. She also uses paper, aluminum cans and manufactured plastic baubles that she keeps organized in a tackle box.
Fulkerson decided to pursue an art degree at the University of Nevada, Reno after sending her grown-up kids out into the world. She studied with Bob Morrison and made sound-based sculptures using things like guitar strings, metal pipes and strips of plastic that sang in the breeze.
After graduating in 1985, Fulkerson found herself teaching art to abused women. As an artist who’d found it exciting to witness the sexual revolution of the 1960s and incorporates feminist themes and imagery into much of her work, she wanted the group to pursue projects in a medium traditionally associated with women.
“I couldn’t sew,” she says, so she taught herself how to make baskets by reading a Japanese book on the subject. (She can’t read Japanese, but that didn’t stop her from picking up the techniques.)
In 1986, Fulkerson decided she wouldn’t mind having some colleagues, so she sought out a few other basketmakers. Now, the Great Basin Basketmakers’ almost 200 members make, exhibit and teach people about baskets. The group offers classes and workshops to beginners and experts, taught by both GBB members and visiting artists. (See www.greatbasinbasketmakers.org.)
Fulkerson’s still inspired by traditional techniques and comtemporary sculpture. She speaks with enthusiasm about fine, little pine-needle baskets. She speaks with even more enthusiasm about contemporary artists like North Carolina’s Patrick Dougherty, known for huge, architectural swirls made from thin branches. (See www.stickwork.net/dougherty).
To Fulkerson, the problem is not that basketmaking is boring. It’s kept her attention for a couple decades, and she’s gained recognition for pushing the limits of the craft while maintaining a deep respect for its roots. She’s shown her work in museums and galleries nationally and written books on basketmaking, with another being released this fall.
“The problem,” she says, “is how to confine it because I have a habit of wanting to do everything. You get too many ideas.”