Renwick Gallery Shutdown

Renwick Gallery opening reception invitation

Renwick Gallery opening reception invitation

We received our invitation to the opening reception of “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. We were excited to go and made our reservations.  As we posted earlier Katherine Lewis had several baskets in this prestigious exhibition. The week before the opening someone asked if the possible federal government shutdown was going to effect our plans. “They are not going to shut the Smithsonian museums!” The following Tuesday morning we found out that Congress considered museums non-essential services and they did indeed shut them down.

willow basket maker at the White House

willow basket maker at the White House

We had non-refundable reservations so we went hoping that an agreement would be reached quickly and we could still attend the exhibit. We arrived in Washington, DC on Thursday, October 3 as planned which was the same day as the Capital was locked down as a result of an incident that involved a woman being killed there by police. We walked down to the White House unaware of the event and were surprised at the heavily armed presence of law enforcement. Katherine decided to protest in front of the White House for more basketry anyway.

Lewis and Lospalluto at the Renwick Gallery

Lewis and Lospalluto at the Renwick Gallery

The Renwick Gallery is at the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and 17th St. NW just down the block from the White House. Some of the basketmakers had  arranged to meet up in front of the Renwick Gallery at the scheduled time of the opening despite the shutdown. Because of the earlier incident there was actually police tape preventing us from even getting to the front door of the Renwick. It was fun anyway to meet some of the basketmakers and their families and friends who showed up to celebrate. People shared stories and tips on what they were up to on their visits to our nation’s slightly dysfunctional capital.

Vice-President in motorcade

Vice-President Biden leaving the White House

While we were standing near the Renwick, a large motorcade assembled and left the White House grounds. The police blocked traffic in front of the Renwick and the motorcade drove out and we could see Vice-President Joe Biden waving from the back of one of the limousines. Unfortunately he didn’t stop to let us in to see the show though the police then took down the yellow barrier tape.

basketmakers at the Renwick Gallery

(l-r) Bill Roeder, Joanna Schanz, Jo Campbell-Amsler, Billy Ray Sims, Scott Gilbert, Jackie Abrams, Katherine Lewis

On Tuesday when we found out the Smithsonian would be closed due to the federal government shutdown, we had sent emails to our congressional representatives about Katherine’s story. On Thursday after our arrival in Washington, DC we were pleasantly surprised to get a call from our Washington 2nd District Representative Rick Larsen’s office. Rep. Larsen’s staff arranged for us to visit his office in the Rayburn Building. He and his staff were interested in our unique story and sympathetic to our disappointment in not getting in to see the exhibition. Steve took the photo of Katherine and Rep. Larsen while his staff member Bryan Thomas was taking a photo as well. They were laughing because Bryan was saying to make sure that Katherine’s basket purse was in the photo.

Representative Rick Larsen and Katherine Lewis

Representative Rick Larsen and Katherine Lewis

Bryan Thomas contacted our local newspaper the Skagit Valley Herald with Katherine’s unique story and photo. She was later reached on the phone by the Herald reporter for an interview while we were on our way to Tennessee where Katherine was going to be teaching. Ironically Katherine’s story wound up on the front page of the Herald because of the shutdown even though it hadn’t been of interest to any northwest art media before the trip. We liked Rep. Larsen’s quote from the article: “She isn’t in the basket-weaving business to have her stuff in the Renwick Gallery. She’s an artisan, she loves what she’s doing and she’s going to continue doing it.”

Elizabeth Broun-Katherine Lewis-Steve Cole

Elizabeth Broun, Katherine Lewis, Steve Cole

Although we were unable to see the exhibition, we did have the opportunity to finally meet the basket collectors, Renwick curators and staff, and more of the basket makers represented in the collection at a reception hosted by Steve Cole and Martha Ware. All the basket makers were presented with the exhibtion catalog by Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery.

Katherine Lewis willow basket on the Smithsonian's website

Katherine Lewis willow basket on the Smithsonian’s website

Of course, the federal government shutdown ended the next week and the exhibtion opened without the fanfare, and will stay open until December 8. One nice consolation was a set of photos of the exhibition that the Smithsonian posted to Flickr. It was also pretty cool to see one of Katherine’s baskets used to promote the exhibition on the Smithsonian’s website.

Having your work represented in an exhibition at the Smithsonian will probably only happen once, so Katherine is headed back to the other Washington to see the exhibition on November 8. After all persistance is necessary if you are a traditional craft artisan.


Cole-Ware Basket Collection Exhibition

Irish potato basket - Katherine Lewis

Irish potato basket by Katherine Lewis. Cole-Ware Collection

“A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” exhibition will be on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum from October 4, – December 8, 2013. There will be 105 baskets crafted by 63 basketmakers from this extraordinary collection assembled by Steve Cole and Martha Ware. Willow basketmaker Katherine Lewis is well represented with six of her baskets on display.

willow rope coil - Katherine Lewis

Steve Cole’s bowl by Katherine Lewis. Cole-Ware Collection

The basketmakers in the collection all work with natural materials that they forage or grow themselves. They harvest black ash, brown ash, white oak, cherry, willow, willow bark, birch bark, pine needles, sweet grass, honeysuckle vines and more. Materials are mostly processed with hand tools. The gathering and processing are as important to the work as the actual weaving of the baskets. Katherine’s work is integrated with farm life in the Skagit Valley where she grows and harvests her willow rods and bark for weaving.

Red and White Oval Panier à Jour - Katherine Lewis

Red and White Oval Panier à Jour by Katherine Lewis. Cole-Ware Collection

The collection represents the diversity of basketry traditions in the United States excepting those of Native Americans. The forms are mostly of functional design or the interpretation of traditional styles by these contemporary craft artists. Katherine takes satisfaction in knowing that many of the baskets she weaves are going to be used on a daily basis; and her baskets in the collection are really no different.

Zig Zag Shopper - Katherine Lewis

Zig Zag Shopper by Katherine Lewis. Cole-Ware Collection

The public opening on October 4 will give visitors the chance to meet many of the makers as well as hear from exhibition curator Nicholas R. Bell who will give a talk at noon. Katherine Lewis will be one of the basketmakers attending the open house. There are additional public programs during the exhibition’s run and the schedule can be viewed on the Smithsonian’s website.

Willow Bark Tray - Katherine Lewis

Willow Bark Tray by Katherine Lewis. Cole-Ware Collection

Part of the exhibition will be a “hands on” education gallery. Visitors will have the opportunity to handle baskets made by several artists in the collection. Katherine made one of her willow fitched market baskets, or panier à jour for this area. Curatorial assistant Debrah Dunner wrote: “I know the public will be delighted to engage with all the touch baskets, and will no doubt be surprised at how strong and substantial handmade baskets can be.”

willow basket - Katherine Lewis

“Hands on” gallery basket by Katherine Lewis

There is an exhibition catalog written by curator Nicholas Bell with a forward by Henry Glassie, Professor Emeritus of Folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington. There are photos of all the baskets as well as photos from the makers documenting their process and craft. The catalog, “A Measure of the Earth” can be purchased at the Renwick Gallery, through the National Basketry Organization, or

Harvested basketry willow at Dunbar Gardens

Harvested basketry willow at Dunbar Gardens. Photo by Steven Lospalluto

Of course, a huge thank you has to go to Steve Cole and Martha Ware for their generous gift. Quoting from a recent email from Steve and Martha, “For the artists, we have been very fortunate to have your work in our home and in our lives every day for many years. Now, nearly all of our baskets have moved on to the Renwick Gallery where they will be a part of the permanent collection. We feel proud to be able to make this gift and hope you are proud of your work and its place in the nation’s craft collection.” Katherine is proud and honored to have been included in the collection with so many outstanding American basketmakers.

Bicycle handlebar basket by Katherine Lewis. Cole-Ware Collection

Bicycle handlebar basket by Katherine Lewis. Cole-Ware Collection

A complete list of the baskets in the exhibition can be seen on the Smithsonian’s website. There is a pdf document with thumbnails and info about the makers.