If you have recently visited our People and Places exhibition in the Community Showcase you might have noticed a change in the Cherokee Heritage Center’s exhibition case: after featuring Kathy Van Buskirk’s Spider Basket (reed, dye, 2007) along with other fascinating artifacts from the Cherokee Heritage Center’s collection, we decided to replace this artwork with Shawna Cain’s River Cane Basket (river cane, natural dyes, string, 2006) for preservation reasons.
The Community Showcase is an exhibition space situated within the beautiful glass South Corridor between the Museum’s main lobby and Great Hall. Equipped with sun-control window film, it connects the main building of the Museum with the Great Hall. The purpose of the Community Showcase exhibitions is to promote regional partner museums and cultural institutions by highlighting significant objects and artifacts from their permanent collections.
One of these special artworks is Kathy Van Buskirk’s Spider Basket. Since it is made of light-sensitive organic materials, we exhibited it only for a limited amount of time in order to prevent it from fading. Its replacement is Shawna Cain’s River Cane Basket. Both artists are accomplished and respected basketry artists who were named Cherokee National Treasures. The Cherokee National Living Treasures Award honors Cherokee artists who have exceptional skill and knowledge of a traditional Cherokee art or craft. These artists are honored for their commitment to education and cultural preservation.
Van Buskirk’s Spider Basket relates to the Cherokee legend of the Water Spider who helped to bring fire to the people. There are several different versions of the legend, but in general they share these common factors: In the beginning of the world, the animal people did not have fire and were often cold. Finally, the Thunders sent lightning to a sycamore tree on an island, which set the tree on fire. All animals that could fly or swim were eager to go after the fire. After several animals tried and failed, Water Spider said she would try. The other animals were skeptical because Water Spider was so small. However, as a water spider she could run on top of the water. She spun a thread from her body and wove it into a little bowl which she fastened on her back. Then she crossed over to the island and put one little coal of the fire into her bowl and brought it back to the animal people. Ever since that day, we humans have had fire and the water spider still has a basket and the marks from the coal on the back.
Even though Shawna Cain’s River Cane Basket is not as narrative as Spider Basket, it is still a fascinating work of art that continues traditional Cherokee basketry techniques. Cain does not only weave her baskets, she also harvests and processes the plant materials she uses for her art. This basket is made from river cane, a plant native to North America that is similar to bamboo. After harvesting the river cane stems in her home state Oklahoma, she removes the leaves and keeps the stems wet to maintain their flexibility. Then she splits the stems lengthwise into thin strips. Basket weavers prefer the silica-rich outer layers of the stems which are durable, smooth and shiny – perfect attributes for a basket. Cain also produces her own natural dyes which give her baskets their beautiful warm earth tones. She collects roots from the bloodroot plant to produce an orange dye for her river cane. She uses black walnuts to dye the cane strips brown, and roots from the butternut tree to create dark brown or black dyes. After gathering the plants she boils them along with the river cane in a large kettle over a fire. Shawna learned weaving and dying techniques from Cherokee elders. She has worked with basket makers from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina.