Basketweaver shares love of ancient craft

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Carolyn Kemp weaves a ribbed-style basket on her front porch in New Gloucester. Kemp and artists across the state are opening their homes for demonstrations as part of Maine Craft Weekend. 

New Gloucester basketweaver Carolyn Kemp will join artists statewide when she opens the doors of her home studio to the public this Saturday, Oct. 1 and Sunday, Oct. 2.

With more than three decades of experience in the craft, Kemp weaves baskets of all different sizes, and even weaves bracelets and delicate earrings from bark. Her passion, she said, is teaching basketry and sharing the art with others, which is exactly what she intends to do this weekend.

As part of Maine Craft Weekend from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, Kemp will demonstrate basketweaving and space-dying techniques. Weather permitting, she’ll be working on her porch, preferring to be outside, she said. A bright orange sign on her front lawn at 175 Sabbathday Road will indicate her participation in the crafter’s weekend.

Kemp said she hopes the demonstrations will inspire attendees to attend one of her classes or pick up one of several books she has co-authored on basketweaving.

Always an artist, Kemp was a painter before she took up basketry in 1981. At the time, she was living in North Carolina with her young children and wanted “something to do that was hands-on,” she said.

She immediately fell in love with basketmaking after taking her first class with teacher Lyn Siler, she said. While painting a watercolor is a “real mental challenge,” basketry is “so comfortable, it’s almost therapeutic.”

She likes the rhythm and spiritual nature of basketweaving, she said. “From the beginning, it put me in touch with history, and everything that came before me,” she said.

Shortly after Kemp took the class, she and Siler began self-publishing instructional booklets on basketry, each with three basket patterns. In the late-1980s, they  produced the Basket Book, with Kemp illustrating. At the time, there was very little written instruction on basketweaving, she said.

Since then, she and Siler have co-authored five books on the topic. The hallmark of their books, she said, is the extreme detail provided in the instructions.

They wrote their books for people who always wanted to learn basketmaking, but don’t have a teacher in their area.

“When I hear from someone that they found our book, and we taught them from the book, that’s always the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten,” she said.

Kemp moved to New Gloucester with her husband in 2010, and now offers in-person instruction at Sabbathday Day Lake Shaker Village, as well as at conventions across the country. Her classes at the village typically have between four and 10 students, she said. Most are beginners, but “they’re very enthusiastic about learning. Almost without fail, anyone who wants to learn basketry can learn,” she said.

At the end of each day-long class, each student leaves with a finished basket, she said.

“I love basketry so much, and I want to share my enthusiasm and experience with students,” she said. Many of her students seek out basketry because they also feel a strong connection to the past, or possibly have ancestors who were Native American, she said.

Kemp doesn’t have Native American ancestory, but she said she feels connected to the rich history of the art when she is weaving a basket.

Of the several weaving techniques, Kemp said the one most often used by Native Americans in Maine and New England is a flat construction, where the basket is first woven in a sheet, then the sides are turned up to create the basket.

For Native Americans, the style of basket they made was dictated by the materials available to them, she said. In New England, this meant baskets were primarily made of ash bark. Kemp likes to use ash when she can get her hands on it, she said, and also uses birch bark.

Kemp said she will use birch she finds outdoors, but only if the tree has fallen before she picks it.

With 35 years of basketmaking history, Kemp has no shortage of baskets in her New Gloucester home. She uses them to hold trash, utensils, fruit, papers and various sundry items.

She also uses a large, flat basket with an intricate navy blue design as her go-to day bag, she said.

The bag is no ordinary canvas tote, so Kemp said strangers will often ask her about the bag, and whether she made it.

“It’s a conversation starter,” Kemp said of the tote, which gives her the opportunity to introduce herself, her art and her passion for basketry.

Kemp said she looks forward to doing the same this weekend in her open studio.

A closer look

Several Lakes Region artists are opening their studios and businesses for Maine Craft Weekend. They are:

Anne Alexander, sculptor, 26 Main St., Windham

Anne Farrar, beeswax ornaments and candles, SunRise Corner gift shop, Standish

C. H. Becksvoort, furniture maker, and Peg Becksvoort, photographer, 186 Durham Road, New Gloucester

David Klenk, woodworker and furniture maker, 300 West Gray Road, Gray

The Birch Canoe, artisan crafts, 90 Roosevelt Trail, South Casco

Bray’s Brew Pub & Eatery, brewery, 678 Roosevelt Trail, Naples

Carolyn Kemp weaves a ribbed-style basket on her front porch in New Gloucester. Kemp and artists across the state are opening their homes for demonstrations as part of Maine Craft Weekend.

Kemp holds one of her creations. For the artist, basketry is “so comfortable, it’s almost therapeutic,” she said.