Basket Weaver's Legacy Focus Of B'ville Exhibit
By Jeff Himler
Published: Friday, July 11, 2003
BLAIRSVILLE--Forget all the tired jokes about Basket Weaving 101.
Woven containers emerged as objects of art from the skilled hands of late Blairsville resident Helen Leigey. Beginning in the 1970s, she gained a reputation as an accomplished exponent of traditional basketry methods, using such natural materials as vines and reeds.
Visitors to Blairsville's Diamond Days Festival, set for Aug. 15-17, will be able to view some of her works in a storefront display being prepared by local artist and photographer Joy Fairbanks, a friend of Leigey's and an admirer of her talent.
Fairbanks, who chairs the Indiana County Bicentennial arts committee, immediately thought of Leigey's hand-woven baskets when it was suggested that local creative works be showcased in conjunction with the town's summertime celebration.
"She took classes from masters and she became a true master," Fairbanks said. She noted Leigey learned the basketry techniques of native Cherokee crafters and adapted them to her own creative style.
Fairbanks marveled at her late friend's process of collecting local honeysuckle vines, treating the plant fibers in boiling water and then assembling them into containers which combined utility and beauty.
"It would be like me making my own paper and then putting a drawing on it," Fairbanks said.
She wasn't alone in appreciating Leigey's creative and technical capabilities.
With assistance from her husband, Bob, and a daughter--Barb DeBiase, who now works and lives with her husband and two children in Colorado--Leigey displayed and sold her baskets and other woven crafts in places ranging from Lancaster and Baltimore to Texas.
As a member of the Indiana Art Association and the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, she routinely exhibited her work in juried competition.
In 1977, she won an award at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Arts Festival with an original honeysuckle basket design featuring a fluted top and a distinctive Cherokee touch: a decorative band of coiled strips fashioned from darker-colored reeds.
DeBiase recalled her mother's passion for traditional basketry was sparked in the early 1970s, when the mother and daughter both attended a summer crafts workshop at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia.
While her daughter studied pottery, Leigey was introduced to the Cherokee basket-weaving tradition by veteran instructor Candice Laird, who had learned the technique while living among native artisans.
Laird was "one of the few white women the Cherokees had taught their traditional material collection and patterns," DeBiase said.
She noted her mother had earlier explored such fiber crafts as macrame and rug hooking before signing up for the West Virginia workshop.
"She thought she might like to make baskets," DeBiase said, noting the course dovetailed with her mother's existing interest in Native American arts and crafts--including Navajo jewelry.
Once her talent and curiosity were awakened, DeBiase said, her mother sought out and employed the basketry customs of numerous other native tribes, as well as those of early Appalachian settlers.
"I could give her any basket and she could tell me which tribe's it was," DeBiase noted.
One of the Cherokee designs her mother adapted was a double-bottomed basket featuring a combination of dyed brown and natural honeysuckle, again with coiled side accents. The design was inspired by and named for Lucy George, an acclaimed basket-maker who also specialized in honeysuckle material.
Among the more unusual Leigey creations her family still treasures is an L-shaped basket with an opening on each end and a handle.
Fairbanks explained it is a replica of a shrimp basket used by the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana.
Leigey turned her hand to many other traditional basket types. The collection of works she has left behind includes a broad-bottomed, tall-sided basket for toting apples and an egg basket with two deep ribbed pockets at the bottom for cradling the breakable contents.
Over the years, Leigey continued to study with other experts in various basketry styles--including Rachel Nash, a protege of Laird's, Bill Cook, who specialized in oak baskets, and Mr. and Mrs. William Cody Cook, who had been the chief basket maker at historic Williamsburg.
In addition, her daughter said, "She loved to collect other artists' baskets in all styles"--including an Apache birch basket and other native versions incorporating porcupine quills and horse hair.
Soon recognized as an expert in her own right, Leigey shared her basket-making knowledge by instructing all levels of students--from pupils at Blairs-ville's elementary school to those enrolled at the Cedar Lakes Craft Center in Ripley, W. Va.
Her husband recalled she also spent a week in residence teaching students at the Touchstone Center for Crafts near Uniontown.
Leigey also passed on some of her skills to her husband and daughter.
Though she now channels her creative drive into watercolor paintings, DeBiase still uses a basket she crafted under her mother's tutelage. "It's an open basket with a handle on it," she said. "You put lettuce in it and spin it to get the water off" the salad greens.
Leigey taught her husband to make one of her most unique and popular items: a tiny woven baby rattle, with small wooden beads serving as the noise-makers inside.
"A lot of people would like to know how to make them," said Bob. "She sold thousands of them to people from all over the country and Europe."
In keeping with her attention to authentic techniques, Leigey took great pains to obtain natural materials for her baskets, with help from her husband and daughter.
Initially Helen Leigey recruited her daughter to help her gather lengths of wild honeysuckle vine. In later years, when their four children had grown, her husband was her chief assistant.
Said DeBiase, "We used to collect the honeysuckle in different thicknesses," with her mother shaping the more slender plants into smaller, finely detailed works.
She noted a favorite spot for harvesting the vine was on an embankment in the Walnut Hill section of Blairsville, to the north of Rt. 22.
Honeysuckle is a relatively recent addition to the Cherokee basket-making tradition, having been introduced to America from Japan. The plant quickly adapted to its new home and became one of the most common vines growing wild east of the Mississippi.
According to Cherokee lore studied by Leigey, the months between September and April were the best for gathering lengths of honeysuckle. When in bloom, the plant is easy to pick out with its small white flowers.
"We would mostly collect it in the early fall," Bob Leigey recalled.
Normally, Cherokee artisans would boil coils of the vine for four hours or more to prepare it. But Bob Leigey hastened the process by placing the coils in a pressure cooker.
"It loosens the bark," he explained. "Then you can take a rag and strip off all the bark and leaves."
Once dried and bleached in the sun, he noted, coils of honeysuckle may be stored for years. To make it pliable for basket-weaving, he said, "You just soak it in water again and you can use it."
Oak and pine needles were among the other natural ingredients Leigey incorporated into her baskets.
Fairbanks pointed out the wider splints used in some of Leigey's baskets are made of oak.
Bob Leigey, who split the wood for his wife, recalled that only white oak would do, in keeping with Cherokee tradition. Logs from young saplings which are free of knots are preferred.
Leigey sometimes used darker pine needles to add fine details within the warp and weft of the light-colored honeysuckle strips.
But they were not so easily obtained as the abundant vines, her husband noted. On an extended trip to the southwest, he recalled, "We spent a couple of days in the boonies of Texas trying to get pine needles."
In addition to combining different fibers, Leigey added colored patterns to her baskets by dyeing some lengths of honeysuckle.
Whenever possible, she used the same natural dyes put to use by native crafters. Compared to commercial dyes, Fairbanks noted, "Natural dyes will hold their color better."
Leigey extracted a brown dye by boiling black walnut hulls, while onion skins imparted a yellowish tint to the honeysuckle.
In later years, Leigey was challenged by arthritis. But, DeBiase said, she continued to work on basketry projects: "It was really good therapy for her. She could continue to have some strength and flexibility in her hands."
Leigey succumbed to complications from heart surgery in 1999, at age 73. But, her husband noted, "She made her rattles until she died," presenting them as gifts to her 10 grandchildren.
When Diamond Days arrives, Blairsville residents and visitors also will be able to share her legacy of traditional basketry.
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