Travels with my Plant - Looking at Fiberart in the USA

During the winter months, I decided that the time was ripe for me to make my first trip to the USA. My basketmaking chum, Kristen had moved there from Largs over 7 years ago and whilst there I could reconnect with members of the Californian Indian Basketmakers (CIBA) and 'Californian Fibers' who had stayed with me in the past. I tentatively penciled the trip in for June with the proviso that I had to be back in time for the Royal Highland Show and put the whole idea on the back burner.

By the end of February, I had a rude awakening when I read the Craft Development Ayrshire bulletin late and found I'd just missed the deadline to join the Crafts Council party going to SOFA in New York for June 2-5.

However, my late application was accepted and during the following months other opportunities fell into my lap. One of the most renowned fibreart galleries in North America, The del Mano in Los Angeles was previewing the annual basketry exhibition during my planned stay and the National Basketmakers Organisation (NBO) was holding its biennial convention ... in California and also in June! Had it not been for the Royal Highland Show I could have attended the annual gathering of the CIBA!

What had started out as holiday plans were suddenly transformed into an action packed tailor made research trip suitable only for basket aficionados. All ideas of bringing my husband were shelved (by him!). The trip also doubled in length to 3 weeks and this meant I applied to SAC and CDA for assistance as there was no way I could fully fund these opportunities alone. These grant applications were also successful.

The Crafts Council grant stipulated that you spent 3 days on focused research on 'SOFA, The 8th Annual International Exposition of Sculpture Objects and Functional Art'. (Although this broadly equates to our term 'Applied Art' it does not include textiles, which are 'Wearable Art' in the US, and I saw two NY galleries dedicated to this form alone one of which featured the work of Jill Blackwood from Glasgow). This and its older sister event in Chicago (and newer events in Florida and California) are the role models for the Crafts Council's 'Collect'. It's the New York show - with its 50 stands including some from France, Italy, Korea, & Canada and Joanna Bird Pottery from the UK-, which can best compare to 'Collect'. The SOFA event also has a lecture series over the 4 days. These are reasonably priced but the one that appealed to me was sadly too expensive as well as being at a difficult time.

The catalogue - paperback but weighing over a kilo with 250 pages was very good value especially as it included the ticket price ...... an idea 'Collect' might adopt?! As well as giving each gallery 2 full colour pages it includes 6 lectures, a section on resources, and a list of exhibiting galleries and exhibitors and adverts. It is a considerable reference book itself.

The show was huge with so many beautiful and wellmade objects to drink up! Most galleries had chosen themes e.g. the Danish Gallery showed international silverware and an LA gallery showed only UK ceramics. Others would present selections of work by the makers they represent e.g. Browngrotta showed international art textiles and fibre sculpture including Valerie Pragnell from Glasgow.

After NY I traveled across the US to San Diego in the south of California where I benefited from my extensive list of friends and contacts who took me to many galleries both general and specific. Serendipity also played a welcome role and on a long trip, my Scots friend Kris and I ended up in Long Beach Museum of Art where a mixed show of Californian Landscape painting included some 38 pieces from the Cotsen Basket Collection (approximately 10% of the entire collection). This was a fantastic scoop - the absolute cream of US basketmaking over the last 20 years! The shop manager there also wanted to buy some of my woven bracelets and I got to dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean. That night I had a BBQ, a hot tub and slept on a waterbed ... 'how cool can one get'?

'Californian Fiber' member and friend, Polly Giachina (who exhibited at the Collins Gallery some 5 years ago stayed with me at the time) turned out to live very close Kristen Sclech's place of work. During a morning in her workshop (she now uses bamboo and has just won the US Bamboo Society's annual prize for a piece) she invited me to come and teach in 2007 ...!

The next day we headed for the opening of the del Mano (which translates as 'by hand') Gallery's annual basket exhibition. I'd been warned the gallery was small but there was room to exhibit 18 makers (including Gyngy Laky with a piece already sold priced at $9000) including mixed items such as turned wood, jewelry and the obligatory teapots (in any media which are highly collected).

I had contacted the owner in advance and set up a meeting, alas she was very ill and my enquiries about what was needed to consider my work were answered in writing:

  • Photos/slides with wholesale price
  • Dimensions and materials
  • CV and artist statement
  • Where your work is exhibited
  • SAE if you want your submission returned

Speaking to other makers along my trip it was suggested to me that if you find a gallery which you think appropriate. contact them and ask what their reviewing procedure for new work is and to whom should you send it?

I asked one of the 7 sales assistants (!) to steer and introduce me to any makers present. As a result I now know a third of those taking part and one maker was, like me, heading onto the NBO convention so this meant I knew at least one person there!

This person Geri turned out to be one of the first people I met on arrival at Lake Tahoe. She makes small baskets out of fishbones and fishing line and what fine baskets they are. For a European moving in the world of contemporary US basketry the question arises 'What constitutes a basket?' I suspect this debate will soon arrive in the UK.

The exhibition put on by the NBO as part of the convention brought this question to the forefront for me and my present position relies on the idea that a basket should be constructed with an over under weaving technique.

Some hundred people attended the convention rushing to its seminars and classes, meals and networking for 3 days and 4 nights. It was great to be more of a spectator than organizer for once and see how others 'do it' differently . personally I could have missed the cocktail party and disco and the bunk beds!

'Research' is a broad remit that I found myself having to modify time and time again. I wanted to make contact with the galleries that sell 'fiberart' which is a much-revered commodity in North America. I found the welcome one got varied greatly and whilst some gave time and advice, others gave a cold s houlder once they realized you were a maker not buyer. This realization became part of the research seeing how galleries treated artists and customers, what care they took over the displays etc.

After 4 visits to SOFA and a range of other NY and many California galleries I began to sense where my own work would fit in, how to price it and so I formed a list of target galleries to approach over the following months.

Research can also be done from home! Years of subscribing to US magazines such as 'Fiber Art', 'American Crafts', and membership of the NBO were highly instrumental in me focusing on the lucrative American market with its clear emphasis on fibreart, basket collectors and many wealthy people. In addition, these US magazines kept me appraised on exhibitions, residencies, conferences and networking opportunities. In future, the Internet will provide this for me if rural broadband become possible.

I am very grateful to the Crafts Council (UK Trade & Invest), the SAC and Craft Development Ayrshire for their support and Fiona Pilgrim, Cultural Enterprise Officer for her guidance.