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Working Wood: Oak-Rod Baskets in Indiana [Exhibition, Presentation @ MMWC]

The final exhibition of the three basketry exhibitions that the Mathers Museum of World Cultures (MMWC) is presenting as part of Themester opened this week. Like the first of the three to open (Willow Work: Viki Graber, Basketmaker), this one was also curated by MMWC Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage Jon Kay as an outgrowth of his research on Indiana folklife pursued as the Director of Traditional Arts Indiana. Later in this post, I will share information on a great upcoming event connected with the exhibition, but first a description:

Working Wood: Oak-Rod Baskets in Indiana presents the work of the Hovis and Bohall families of Brown County, Indiana, who made distinctive white-oak baskets for their neighbors to carry everyday items and to gather corn. However, by the 1930s, the interest of urban tourists transformed these sturdy workbaskets into desirable souvenirs and art objects. In recent years, these baskets have come to be called “Brown County” and “Bohall” baskets, perhaps because of the great number of baskets made by the Bohall family in Brown county during the 1920s and 1930s. Nevertheless, the history of this craft is more complex these names reveal. Using artifacts and historic photographs, this exhibit explores the shifts in the uses and meanings of these baskets as they changed from obsolete, agricultural implements, into a tourist commodity. Using the lens of work, this exhibition tells the story of these oak-rod baskets and the people who made and used them, and how local makers strived to find a new audience for their old craft, and how ultimately the lure of steady work in the city contributed to the end of this tradition. Sponsored by Fall 2015 Themester @Work: The Nature of Labor on a Changing Planet, the exhibit will be on display at the museum through February 7, 2016.

It is great to now see all three basketry exhibitions open and staged in adjacent galleries. (Putting Baskets to Work in Southwestern China is the other one–I curated it with Lijun Zhang, Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities). Together they are one outgrowth of a broader focus at present on basketry research at MMWC. I’ll discuss some other aspects of this work in later posts. (Our Themester series echos the College’s theme. Our work is together grouped as @Work with Basketry on a Changing Planet).

A chance to learn more about the work of the basketmakers explored in Working Wood: Oak-Rod Baskets in Indiana is upcoming this Friday at the MMWC. Jon will present a talk titled “The Last Basketmaker: Indiana’s Oak-Rod Baskets and Their Makers” (Friday, September 11; 4 to 5 p.m.). Here is our description of the event:

The Bohall and Hovis families of Brown County made oak-rod baskets for their neighbors to gather produce and carry everyday items. While these workbaskets were essential for subsistence farming, industrialization and changes in agricultural practices threatened the continuation of this craft. and by the 1980s, the weaving of oak-rod baskets had ended in Indiana. In a lecture filled with historic photographs, Jon Kay, Director of Traditional Arts Indiana and Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the MMWC, unravels the story of these baskets and explores the global forces that brought this distinctive Indiana tradition to an end. The lecture, sponsored by Fall 2015 Themester @Work: The Nature of Labor on a Changing Planet, is free and open to the public.

Friday afternoon will be a great time to see the exhibitions and then hear and see Jon’s talk. I hope that you can make it.

The front of the At Work with Basketry on a Changing Planet postcard.

The front of the At Work with Basketry on a Changing Planet postcard.

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