According to legend, the kudzu vine has been known to swallow small barns and outhouses in a single day. Poet James Dickey realized the rapidly spreading nature of kudzu, and advised people to “close their windows at night to keep the pesky vine out of their houses.”
There may be a smidgen of truth in these ‘sayings” because kudzu covers 7 million acres of the Deep South. Originally planted in this country to help prevent soil erosion and for use as animal fodder, rampant kudzu has become both feared and detested.
Nancy Basket of Walhalla is on a campaign to improve kudzu’s overall image. The Native American artist has discovered the usefulness of kudzu, and travels the country, teaching others how to incorporate kudzu vines and leaves into works of art.
“I use kudzu to make paper art and beautiful baskets. Kudzu blossoms can be used to make a very tasty jelly and kudzu is often used in stuffing, quiche and candy recipes,” Basket explained.
Basket, who takes her name from her Cherokee grandmother Margaret Basket and from the work she does, is an artist-in-education in basketry, papermaking and storytelling in the Carolinas. The McKissick Museum recognized Nancy Basket as a master basket-maker in an apprenticeship program to a Catawba woman. Two major movie companies have also commissioned her basketry skills.
“I made a hot-air balloon basket out of cattail leaves for the ‘Young Indiana Jones’ television series,” she said. “For the movie, ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ I made cattail leaf mats, bark baskets and corn husk masks.”
Recently, she brought her basketry, paper art and storytelling skills to the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center through a youth summer arts program made possible through funding from Time Warner Cable.
“Each child made their own random free-form woven basket with a personality to match their own,” explained Beth Thomas, executive director of the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center. “Students also made kudzu paper, which they used for making a picture, and a book of drawn stories. And Nancy Basket weaves stories as well as baskets. Her stories are folklore handed down through her Cherokee ancestors and center around nature, with the main characters being animals and plants. Each story has a sound moral principle that can be applied to everyday life.”
In teaching the art of kudzu, Basket explained how her Cherokee ancestors did not believe in wasting anything. Native Americans, she explained, found myriad uses for their natural surroundings. To demonstrate how to find something where you think there is nothing, Basket refers to the kudzu plant.
“The kudzu plant is very abundant in South Carolina,” Basket says. “While considered a nuisance, the vines are very supple and pliable and can be easily shredded into long strips. These strips need no special treatment and can easily be bent, twisted, turned and tied into baskets of any size or shape.”
Thomas pointed out that Basket emphasizes to her students that while they follow the same crafting directions and use the same materials, each completed basket is uniquely different.
“Nancy taught this principal to the children: Different is not bad, different is simply different. People are like their baskets. We don’t all look the same, speak the same or dress the same,” Thomas said.
During classes at the center, Basket also shared certain Native American words, phrases and songs with her students. She talked about birds and how they were the world’s first basket-makers and showed the class nests made by an eagle and a hummingbird. Basket also introduced the subject of petroglyphs and petrographs (carvings or paintings on rocks).
“Throughout the class Nancy would ask the children, ‘Habu?’ (Do you understand?) and they would nod and reply, ‘HABU!’ (Yes, we understand),” Thomas said, While Basket uses kudzu for making many different things, she also utilizes pine needles to fashion museum quality bowl-shaped baskets, bear effigy basket jewelry boxes, Cherokee Uktena masks and cradleboards.
“I learned how to make pine needle baskets from my friend, Judy Arledge, in 1981,” Basket said. “Then I met a Cherokee man at a bread store in Washington who showed me his family’s collection of pine needle baskets, and he shared the stories about each one. Impressed, I offered to buy the collection, but he replied, ‘Your job isn’t to buy these baskets. Your job is to make them.”
Greatly encouraged by the man’s words, Basket obtained more instruction and worked hard to perfect her basket-making skills.
“Later on,” Basket said, “I helped form the first basketry guild in the United States.”
For the past 15 years, Nancy Basket has researched and shared her basketry and storytelling skills at powwows, primitive skills gatherings and through the National Indian Education Association as a presenter of traditional and contemporary baskets. A number of colleges and arts centers have sponsored workshops, and she has been featured on educational television programs.
Most people agree they would like to see kudzu eradicated from overgrown properties, but Nancy Basket cherishes the plant for its many uses.
“My Native American ancestry,” Basket says, “has played a role in the success of my basket making career. I feel the ‘Old Ones’ guiding my fingers, and I am proud to be making something beautiful.”
For more information about Nancy Basket, visit www.nancybasket.com.