On May 29th a new show goes up––a particularly important one––at Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts. Titled “Jackie Abrams: 45 Years of Making” it brings together basketry from Abrams’ many series over her lifetime, from her early years of traditional basketry to those of the “Precarious Shelters” series, which are hardly baskets at all, but are symbolic of those shapes that hold our lives, as baskets may be holders of objects.

Over the past forty-five years, there have been collaborations with glass artist, Josh Bernbaum and fabric artist Deidre Scherer. A total of twenty different series of contemporary basketry will be exhibited. Throughout her very successful career, Abrams kept at least one basket from each series. These pieces, kept for her personal enjoyment in her home, make the show a comprehensive survey. There will be over sixty individual pieces in the show which is being called her last, owing to a late-stage cancer diagnosis.

Jackie Abrams talked to me about her life in art as we sat outside her home and studio in Brattleboro. She used an oxygen tube, the only visible sign of her disease. She had already been through surgery and chemotherapy but she was feeling pretty good that day, looking forward to the opening of her show, and was able to chat animatedly. She got her devastating diagnosis in December of last year.

Petria Mitchell, owner with her husband Jim Giddings, of Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts, says of Abrams, “I’ve never known anyone who could think through their fingers as she can – she has learned how to walk creatively on the planet.”

Abrams’ “creative walk” was not a given. Her family insisted their three daughters study something in college that was practical, that could get them a job when they graduated. Jackie was steered toward teaching. So while she always “loved three-dimensional form” she had no formal art training growing up. Sometimes, she confessed, she feels that lack. But she was always attracted to “making things” and once on her own she took many workshops, trying out different kinds of crafts …pottery, fabric arts, book arts, printing. In 1975 she met Ben Higgins, an 81 year old master of basketry. At twenty-six she left teaching and apprenticed to him for six months. One thing that was especially great about basketry, said Abrams, was “I could just go to the hardware store, get a few tools, and work in my living room.” That turned out to be especially important once she had children.

For the first thirteen years, her approach was traditional, using the traditional methods and materials of basketry that have been used by cultures around the world for thousands of years. Materials such as grasses, reeds, and barks, making shapes that were utilitarian.

But for most of her years as a maker Abrams considers herself part of the “contemporary basketry” movement. Perhaps akin to the movement from realism to abstract art in the two-dimensional realm, Abrams lauds the freedom she has felt. “Having your baskets be functional is very limiting. If you let go of that, if you can just make something for beauty’s sake––there’s color, texture. If you don’t care about utility, it opens up a million doors! Sometimes I make a shape, and I feel it afterward, being so beautiful!” In pieces, such as Campanula from 1993, or Seattle Red Urn from 1998, material and form come together to form bright woven gems.

Explaining why she has had so many different series, Abrams said “I love figuring out the technical part. Once I do, I make some baskets and then I move on.” Lucky for the public! Always fresh, inventive, Abrams’ work is in museum collections, and has a following. To this writer’s eyes, Abrams’ baskets are poems. Their materials, the technique can be compared to words, poetic forms, but the impact is emotional and even spiritual. Sometimes a basket, its form meandering but not random, can seem to have a life of its own.

Baskets in the “Spirit Women” series are made by adapting the ancient technique of “coiling,” using strips of recycled silk, cotton, linen, and plastic bags. One such piece in the show “Hidden Memories: the Ravages of Dementia,” is made up of stitched together rows, bent and swirling coils of black and yellow surrounding a small opening at top. Other pieces from the series have titles such as A Woman of Substance, The Matriarch. Blue Stone Stories. Says Abrams, “These vessels reflect women’s spirits – our strong inner cores as well as our sometimes frayed edges.”

Abrams points to having been inspired by Lissa Hunter, whom she calls one of her mentors. “In one of her workshops she asked ‘What is art?’ She said there’s materials and there’s technique and you can be good or bad at using those. But for what you make to be art it has to be about something. It must have content.”

This led to a discussion of Women Forms, one of Abrams’ longest-lasting series.

“I had been going to Africa to teach and was speaking to a lot of women about the power of women, their stories, their lives. I got the thought that our bodies are shaped by our stories.” These “baskets” rise up organically, are often asymmetrical (“our bodies are not symmetrical”) in colors that range from earthy russets or gold to vibrant reds and blues.

I asked the artist what she hoped people would get from her work. She answered with a story:

“I was at a show with work from the Women Forms. I had a short artist statement about our bodies being collectors of our stories. This woman went into my tent to look more closely at the pieces and when she came out she was sobbing. She got it! I’ve always remembered that as the best moment in my career! She was so moved.”

Abrams calls her sixties her best decade. From an email: Certainly creatively. I had the materials, technical skills, and interest to make my work exciting to me. Hopefully exciting to others as well. I was getting some wonderful recognition for my work, always satisfying. — My life was also easier; I was finished raising kids, I didn’t need more money than I had, I was healthy. I was traveling and doing craft development work in Africa. She wondered what would come next. It became clear: in her seventies she would delve into Precarious Shelters.

This, her most recent series, has a less personal, more outward facing “about” but is no less a part of Abrams’ world view, and one which  she has felt to be “an exciting new direction,” spurred by the need to “bear witness, and make a difference,” specifically to raise awareness of housing issues.

Abrams’ interest in art that speaks to social justice issues goes back a ways… In 2017 she was a prime mover of the much praised “Resist” exhibit, held in the River Garden. Earlier, environmental concerns spurred her to focus some of her teaching in Africa on the problem of plastic bags littering the landscape. In Ghana Abrams taught women to use these bags to weave into baskets, to startling effect.

She had been ready to do more traveling the world and teaching basketry, something that had been a mainstay in her life for many years. But Covid made that impossible. Instead there was what the artist said felt like “a forced residency.” With traveling impossible, she started working on the house-like forms that have become the Precarious Shelters series. This from an email the artist sent: I have always been interested in buildings that have seen better days. My photos of them date back for decades. In about 2017, when I turned about 68, I started thinking seriously about creating “Precarious Shelters,” expecting to work on them for 10 years. During that early “residency” period Abrams said,  “I had an enormous pile of failures, usually I don’t have the luxury of that many failures, but eventually I made twenty or so that I thought were successful.” It was enough for an exhibit at MGFA this past January.

Abrams contacted some museums that already had some pieces of hers in their collection, or had had shows previously of art that crossed that line. Some museums wrote back, but all is currently on hold because of her health situation. Going forward Petria Mitchell and MGFA will handle the exhibiting of Abrams’ work.

Jackie Abrams taught from 1975 to 2020. Covid put a temporary end to it, and then with her illness she has stopped her teaching and traveling altogether. In the Fall of last year, before her diagnosis, she started doing Zoom classes, and to her amazement (“I went kicking and screaming!”) she found that she liked it and that her teaching style “translated well.” Sessions of 8-10 students were held once a month. Her approach emphasizes creativity and freedom. “I want my students to understand technique, so they can adapt it to their own design. My only rule is whatever you make has to hold together!”

Petey Mitchell says many of her students have come forward with “testimonials” about how much her classes, and who she is as a person, have meant to them.

Her teaching has taken her all over the US, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Uganda; she has been to Ghana and Australia eight times each. Most importantly, says Abrams, “I met, was hosted by, and worked with so many wonderful people.”

Perhaps the “capstone” of Abrams’ teaching career has come recently. In February of 2020 she went to Costa Rica, teaching classes in a very run-down, unsafe, section of San Jose, at a non-profit center called Sifais. Many different skills from art to literacy to martial arts are taught there to women struggling and in poverty. “They were ready for me. I don’t charge for my time, so before I go to teach somewhere, everything has to be in place.” She taught them crocheting and coiling and used recycled materials. “I was there everyday in February. The day I left they found the first Covid case in the USA.” This is the place, says Abrams, that “is doing what I’d always hoped would happen when I left”….. The women who took her class are now teaching other women. Furthermore, says Abrams, “They are coming up with new design ideas and continuing to use recycled material.”

Many people only learned of Abrams’ illness through an emailed announcement from her in early April that she was selling everything in her studio in an online sale. It consisted of fifty-six bundles that included tools, basketry materials, fabric, and the like, each going for $100. Within three hours everything had sold. Plus some people made donations. “It made me crazy! I’ve never experienced anything like that!,” exclaimed Abrams. The proceeds from the sale all went to Sifais. “I was able to send them a check for over $5700!” said Abrams with great satisfaction.

Owing to the artist’s ongoing desire to be of help to those who struggle not just in foreign lands but right here at home, 10% of the proceeds from work sold from “45 Years of Making,” will go to Groundworks Collaborative.

It is the desire of any artist that their work will survive after them. Abrams’ friends and colleagues will continue to pray for a miracle, even beyond the one of her feeling well enough to participate in putting together “45 Years of Making.”

But if it must be a send-off gift, this show is surely just as much a gift to a public that has loved, been moved by, and supported her work over these many years.

Published May 26, 2021 in The Commons