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A Southwest Central Indiana Collaboration: The Art with a Purpose Exhibition at the Brown County Art Gallery

This afternoon the Brown County Art Gallery in Nashville, opened the exhibition Art with a Purpose: Brown County Baskets. The exhibition is a homecoming, of sorts, because it is being staged in the community in which the baskets and basket makers who are the exhibition’s focus lived and worked. Oak rod baskets, while once made in other pockets in the Eastern United States, were unique within Indiana in a small region centered on Brown County. The exhibition is also a homecoming in another way. While the exhibition’s curator–Dr. Jon Kay–produces exhibitions that appear all around Indiana, and at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures‘ galleries in Bloomington, it is much less common for him to be able to present an exhibition in his own home town of Nashville. Thanks go to Lyn Letsinger-Miller, President of the Brown County Art Gallery, and to the Gallery’s other leaders, for hosting the exhibition and a very special kick-off event today.

The exhibition is also an exciting re-mix, as it is a new, edited, and updated version of Working Wood: Oak-Rod Baskets in Indiana, the 2015 exhibition that Jon curated for the Mathers Museum of World Cultures as part of the 2015 Themester @Work: The Nature of Labor on a Changing Planet (a program of the IU College of Arts and Sciences). As you can see from the photographs, the exhibition was adapted for the art gallery and includes two beautiful paintings related to the county’s unique basketry heritage executed in the Brown County Art Colony’s signature style. They are The Basket Weaver and The Basket Weaver’s Daughter, both by E. K. Williams.

In Jon’s talk this afternoon, he explained the history and practice of oak rod basketry and tracked the ways that these baskets went from being valuable tools for everyday living to being symbols of an old-fashioned way of life consumed by urban tourists visiting the county to disappearing when easier-to-make white oak splint baskets were imported to the county from basket making areas of Kentucky and Tennessee. These rustic splint baskets were good enough for tourists who did not know the local history of rod basketry and who were not collecting the works of named artisans.  The story of particular basket making families linked across time, in Jon’s account, to the broader history of tourism and the politics of culture in Brown County. These themes, in turn, reflected larger modern and anti-modern sensibilities in the U.S. as a whole during the twentieth century.

There was a big crowd out for the opening events. The attendance by descendants of the two key basket marking families–Hovis and Bohall–made today’s events extra special. Thanks go to the Brown County Art Gallery for its wonderful efforts bringing this exhibition to a new audience. Congratulations to Jon and to all of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures staff and students who worked on the project.

Some background…

Traditional Arts Indiana, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures program that Jon Kay directs, is a partnership between Indiana University and the Indiana Arts Commission. Its task is to document, interpret, and support the folk and traditional arts across all of Indiana. It does that in a myriad of ways, including through the production of exhibitions that circulate across the state and engage its people in deeper appreciation for Indiana’s diverse heritage.

While TAI has a statewide focus, as does Indiana University, Indiana University Bloomington is making a special effort to support, and positively impact, the eleven counties of the Southwest Central Indiana region in which our campus is located (Brown, Crawford, Daviess, Dubois, Greene, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen and Washington). Projects being pursued in this region are, like the Art with a Purpose: Brown County Baskets exhibition, intended to be partnerships between parts of the university (such as Traditional Arts Indiana/Mathers Museum of World Cutures) and local community organizations, such as the Brown County Art Gallery. In pursuing collaborations such as this one, we are happy to be advancing our campus’ goals while, we hope, also enhancing the quality of life and cultural richness in the region in which we live and work.

Jon Kay is Director of Traditional Arts Indiana and Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. At Indiana University, he is also a Professor of Practice in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. His most recent book is Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and their Makers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016). That book is a title in the Material Vernaculars series that the museum co-publishes with Indiana University Press. Jon’s studies of Brown County are reflected, for instance, in his article “A Picture of an Old Country Store“, published in Museum Anthropology Review.

Learn more about oak rod baskets in Annie Corrigan‘s 2015 radio story with Jon for WFIU (“Southern Indiana’s Lost Craft“).

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