Meredith Peach basketry blog

Welcome to A Basketmaker's Journeys, the blog of Meredith Peach (aka Meri Peach), an Australian artist using basketry techniques to make sculptural and functional vessels. Meri regularly exhibits, teaches basketry workshops and has held several artist residencies. She also works as an illustrator and biologist. Her website can be found at http://www.sharkchic.com.au/

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Basketry NSW is now an Incorporated Association

When I first started making baskets, I was very keen to find a group of like-minded people to work with. One of the great joys of basketry is the social aspect; it is easy to make baskets and chat at the same time, unlike some other art forms.

Basketry groups have existed in other Australian states for quite some time, but I could find nothing in NSW until my friend Glenese started hosting a group at her home in 2006. Over time this group has grown and flourished, and now we have reached the time to become a formal association.

Basketry NSW Inc is joining a stable of art and craft groups based at Primrose Park, Cremorne, in the northern suburbs of Sydney. For details of meetings and membership, see http://www.primrose-park.com.au/Basketry/basketry.html. The group also has a Facebook page at

http://www.facebook.com/BasketryNSW

When I first experimented with basketry from reclaimed materials

Much of my work relates to aspects of nature and human relationships with nature. I think about things from a biologist’s perspective as well as an artist’s. In the last few years, though, the materials for my work have moved away from the natural and towards the synthetic – reclaimed plastics and the like. I am not the only artist working with such materials, but perhaps my motivation is a little different to most. Here is the story of how I started including plastic in my baskets.

It was 2008, and I was doing an Artist Residency at Primrose Park Art and Craft Centre, a former sewerage works in a northern suburb of Sydney. Outside the studio door was a large grassed playing field stretching down to the harbour shore. This had once been a coastal wetland, but had been “reclaimed” (i.e. filled in) using landfill covered with turf. At the time I was also working as an environmental educator at Sydney Olympic Park, another area where wetlands had been destroyed by this “land reclamation” process. I use the inverted commas because I don’t like the term. “Wetland destruction” would be more apt. Anyhow, I had some background knowledge of how these parks were originally constructed.

In the past couple of hundred years Australians have often used coastal wetlands as rubbish dumps, and plenty of rubbish would probably have been included in the landfill used to raise up the playing field of Primrose Park. I was thinking about all the layers of stuff that might lie just underneath the grassy surface, and how I could represent these in my basketry work. It occurred to me that I might as well use exactly the same materials that were under the park; a combination of organic and synthetic. So I began to include strips of plastic, leather, fabric, metal, etc, in coiled baskets along with the usual plant fibres. Here are some pictures of the baskets I made during this time.

“Reclamation” and “Persistence” were the first baskets I made this way. I used different coloured materials to refer to different chemical layers in the sediment; black for areas without oxygen, red for areas rich in iron, white for deposits of calcium carbonate from marine creatures, yellow for sulfur compounds. The layers aren’t necessarily arranged in a biologically realistic manner – a bit of artistic licence was involved, as I wanted to create an aesthetically appealing gradation of colours. In “Persistence”, the rim is made from knotweed, one of the many weeds flourishing in the bushland around Primrose Park. Representations of its roots reach down through the layers of the basket.

For those interested in the technical details of basketry, the coiling method used here was not a traditional one. I have disguised the stitches so that the baskets look almost like they were randomly woven rather than coiled. I used nylon fishing line for the stitching material, and made the stitches diagonally through the tightly twisted core materials, so that the stitches are almost indistinguishable from the other materials. Finally the random weave rim was stitched on top, and the “roots” stitched onto the outside.

Weaving a giant bird’s nest with pre-schoolers

Recently I taught basket weaving to a group of pre-school students. They wanted to make a giant bird’s nest for their school art exhibition. First I wove a broad frame for them to weave on, using 5 mm cane to make a shallow bowl about 1.5 metres in diameter. On the first day I taught the youngest children who were 3-4 years old. For this group I cut lengths of 4 mm rattan cane about 50-60 cm long, and we also used whole Cordyline australis leaves.

About 5 students at a time sat around the nest and learned the basics of weaving. I was astonished at how adept they were, having expected children so young to struggle with the technique. On the second day, with 4-5 year old students, we used 3 mm cane and rattan peel. By this time the holes in the basket were smaller, and it would have been too difficult to use thicker cane.

As well as the cane, we had a variety of recycled materials such as packing tape and baling twine, which some of the children found easier to use than the cane. They also liked the bright colours, and we talked about how birds will use whatever they can find in their nests, and how some birds (like bower birds) prefer certain colours. We finished off the nest by weaving and tying soft woolen pieces on the inside.

Coconut palm baskets in Far North Queensland

Palm Cove, Far North Queensland. Playground of the rich, you might think, not necessarily the place to find traditional basket making… but on a much-anticipated holiday in the sun, I came across a Torres Strait Islander making beautiful palm leaf baskets on the main esplanade. He kindly let me sit and watch the making process, which was intriguing.

First the coconut palm leaf was split in half down the mid rib, using a sturdy knife. Then the half-leaf was twisted into a circle, securing it with string around a notch in the mid-rib. Then the leaflets were woven first outwards, and then back into the middle. The basket was finished by wrapping each leaflet in turn around the midrib, which formed a ring-base for the basket to sit on.

The skill of the basket maker was obvious from the way he counted, measured and put just the right amount of tension on the leaves. The whole process took only about 20 minutes from the initial splitting of the palm leaf. The basket maker told me that these forms were originally inspired by the woven nests of green ants. He also gave me a delightful palm leaf grasshopper.

Jump to the present day – artist residency at Sturt

Having originally intended to write this blog chronologically, I find I am too impatient to talk about the present! So this section of the blog is about my recent adventures, and later on I will revisit the past. It’s OK for movie-makers to jump around in time, so I don’t see why bloggers can’t do it.

For the past couple of months I have been an Artist in Residence at Sturt Craft Centre, Mittagong, Australia. My studio is in the Weave Room, surrounded by loom weavers. I am working with both recycled and natural plant materials, making pieces for exhibitions (including my first solo show, planned for next year). Sometimes I combine the recycled and the natural… sometimes I go fully for one or the other.

This recently made "Sunset Basket" combines plant materials with telephone wire and onion bags.

"Journey to the surface of the earth" combines Cordyline australis with chip wrappers and telephone wire.

This is my fourth artist residency, and I find it’s a great way to focus the mind and bring forth a cohesive body of work. The themes that are currently occupying/ obsessing me are to do with human impacts on the natural world. Since the materials I work with often comprise the contents of rubbish heaps or street litter, I am making pieces that refer to the ultimate fate of plastic bags etc. They end up blowing around in the street like autumn leaves, or accumulating in the ocean where they break down (into tiny particles, but this is not the same thing as biodegrading). How will these tiny plastic particles affect the health of the small organisms that ingest them? Whether or not they then migrate up the food chain is something that scientists are only just beginning to study. It is disturbing to think about.

I first started using plastics while doing another artist residency at the site of a former landfill area. More on that later.

Some of the pieces I am making are essentialy sea monsters arising from my imaginings about the dangers of plastic in the ocean. Like the sea monsters of old, they may ultimately prove to be mythical creatures. I hope so.

"Disenchantment under the sea" is made from the plastic wrap that newspapers are delivered in. This plastic comes in different colours in different parts of Australia.

"Leviathan"... a plastic sea monster.

Plastic as a material is interesting to work with in basketry. Plastic bags don’t have fibres, so lack the structural strength of plant materials… but on the other hand they are stretchy, shiny, colourful, and need no special preparation. I avoid using recently made biodegradable plastics, as I want my work to last a long time. After peak oil really kicks in, whenever that may be, perhaps items made from old style plastic bags will become rare, desirable and expensive!

In conclusion, since the plastic bag has threatened to kill off the traditional basket for most of the last century, I enjoy the irony of a plastic bag ending its useful life as a basket.

Early days

This blog has started off in a very retrospective vein. I will get around to talking about the present day eventually, but as the blog is called a basket maker’s “journeys” (that word so much beloved of reality TV shows), I first want to describe my early days of basket making.

Several months and several experiments after making my first random weave baskets, I discovered that an expert basket maker, Virginia Kaiser, was offering basketry workshops nearby. I attended two of Virginia’s workshops and began to learn some proper techniques, and to understand and harness the urge that led me to make those first baskets. I bought every basketry book I could find and began to teach myself other techniques. I started collecting and experimenting with many different plant materials.

In 2004 I sold my first basket through a local gift shop. Here is a photo of that basket, which I called “Busting Loose”. It was made from inflorescences (flower stalks) of the Bangalow palm tree.

The beginning of a basket maker’s journey

It’s time to embrace the blog and marry this 21st century technology with technology from many thousands of years BC… that is, the amazing art of basketry. I will be blogging about my practice as an artist in Australia using basketry techniques to make both sculptures and functional vessels.

I made my first basket, unexpectedly, while weeding the garden in 2002. I had a hank of beautiful passionfruit vine in my hand, that had been dug up a few weeks previously and had bleached in the sun. I couldn’t bear to throw such lovely material on the compost heap, so instead I started playing with it, twisting it around and tucking the ends in to make a structure similar to a bird’s nest. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was using a technique called “random weave”. That was the birth of Meredith Peach, basket maker. Prior to that day I had no notion of ever making baskets.

My first random weave experiments

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