2010 Ocracoke Heritage Class
by Gael Hawkins
If you live on Ocracoke year round, you undoubtedly have been asked by a suntanned visitor in July “So, what do you do here in the winter?”. When that question is posed to me, I conjure up images of being snuggled up with my cats and with that pile of books that I never got about to reading, walking on the beach all alone and visiting with all the people I never get to see during the busy vacation season. But, in truth, once the Thanksgiving/ Christmas chaos is over and maybe a book or two has been read, I am ready for some action. This year, thanks to a generous grant through the Beaufort County Arts Council, I was able to participate in the Ocracoke 2010 Heritage Class, a weeklong event to learn a variety of basketry techniques. Judith Saunders, part time resident of Ocracoke and well known basketry artist, was our instructor. For more than 25 years Judith has explored weaving three-dimensional forms using a variety of traditional and non-traditional materials. Hand-painted watercolor paper and copper are her materials of choice. She has taught workshops in Virginia and North Carolina, including classes for the first two sessions of the local “Ocrafolk School” and has shown her work in many national juried exhibitions. Examples of her fine craft can be seen locally at Island Artworks. Ocracoke resident Amy Howard served as Judith’s able and very patient student assistant. Amy has attended the John C. Campbell Folk School and is also an accomplished basket weaver.
Several of the fourteen class participants, including me, were weaving for the first time while others had prior basket making experience. We met each day at the Ocracoke Community Center where we had access to all of the requisite tools and every imaginable type of material to create a basket-all provided by Judith and classmates. We worked with natural and dyed reeds, locally harvested materials, and even yarns that had been spun by one of the participants. My first basket was an attempt to replicate one of our instructor’s beautiful bias plaited pieces with strips of watercolor paper hand painted by Judith. My respect for basket weaving grew exponentially as I struggled with those floppy strips. Miraculously, and with lots of help, I finished it. Did it remotely resemble a “Judith” basket? –No. Did I love trying? YES! The days flew by and the students did amazing work. Several used Ocracoke seashells and coral as the bases for baskets that appear to be growing from them. This design idea is something that Judith has been working on for the past 15 years and she graciously shared her techniques with us. At the end of the class, it was quite wonderful to see all of the basket shapes, sizes and colors we had woven during one week in cold, windy February on our island where some people suppose that nothing happens in winter.
Footnote: The Beaufort County Arts Council is a regional arts council for Beaufort, Washington and Hyde Counties that works with the North Carolina Arts Council to ensure that rural counties such as ours have art opportunities. Funding for the Heritage Class Grassroots Grant was provided by the State of North Carolina and the National Endowment for the Arts.