Once considered the most prolific white oak basketmaking region in the United States, Cannon County and neighboring Warren County now claim only two remaining active white oak basket makers. Sue Williams is one of them. She states, “I am the only white oak basket teacher in Middle Tennessee. Years ago, white oak basket making in Cannon County was one of the major sources of income.” Williams learned from legendary basketmakers Estel and Gertie Youngblood. Her apprentice Brenda Kucharski – already a skilled basket weaver – has never built a basket from scratch, which entails finding and processing the raw materials herself. Williams will teach Kucharski the strenuous process of selecting the right kind of white oak tree, cutting it down, identifying the parts of the tree best suited for various parts of the basket, and processing the splints. Williams will also teach her basket styles that Kucharski does not already know, such as the Cannon County Tie. Kucharski hopes, “This will allow me to become an independent white oak basket maker and to share the skill with others.” They plan to set up an exhibit at the Arts Center of Cannon County and/or the Magness library in Warren County.
Sue Williams, basketmaker
Describe the traditional art or skill you are teaching?
I am teaching my apprentice how to select a suitable white oak tree from the woods, harvest the pole and break it down into the parts of the basket: the handle and rim, the tie, the ribs and the weavers; and finally, how to weave a traditional white oak egg basket using the Cannon County tie. The Cannon County Tie is an X pattern with a vertical bar woven at the point where the handle connects to the rim on each side. It stabilizes the handle/rim connection as well as providing a decorative cover where the two are joined together.
How did you learn this skill? Who taught you? How long have you been practicing it?
I took my first class in 1985 at the Warren County UT Extension Office from Estel Youngblood and Gertie Youngblood. Both Ms. Gertie and Estel learned to make baskets as children growing up in the rocky hills of Cannon County, TN. Estel is known throughout the southeast as a basketmaker and broker. Ms. Gertie has various examples of her baskets on display in the Smithsonian. I have continued learning as well as teaching and making White Oak Baskets since 1985.
Is this art form rare or endangered in your community? Why do you believe that it is important to preserve and pass down this art form?
I personally know of only two people in addition to myself who make White Oak Baskets in Tennessee. I am the only White Oak Basket teacher in Middle Tennessee. Years ago White Oak Basket making in Cannon County was one of the main sources of income. Baskets were traded or sold to buy groceries, medicine, fabric for making clothes, and even livestock. Every household in the area had white oak baskets that were used for gathering eggs, garden vegetables and feeding animals. Very few of the children learned to make baskets. The children started working at public jobs, often completely rejecting the craft of basket making because they were ashamed of the life style of their parents. As a result, the making of White Oak Baskets is now almost a lost art.
What is the importance or role of this art form in your community? How have you shared your art form?
It is extremely important to preserve the skill of White Oak Basket making in Middle Tennessee because this area is one of the most unique in the type of Oak needed for preserving this heritage skill. I have tried to help preserve the appreciation of the art by hosting displays at area high schools, the Warren County fair, state fair, Ketner’s Mill Annual Craft Fair, Uncle Dave Macon Days in Murfreesboro, WPA Days at Cedars of Lebanon State Park, as well as the White Oak Craft Fair at Cannon County Arts Center. When the White Oak fair started, there were fifteen to twenty basket craftsmen displaying. Now there are only three and only one from the area.
Have you taught this skill before?
After my introduction to White Oak Basket Making in 1985, I helped set up the Heritage Skills Seminar for White Oak Baskets in 1986 in conjunction with UT Extension at the Clyde York 4 H Camp in Crossville, Tennessee. Estel Youngblood, Gertie Youngblood and Mary Jane Prater were the teachers. Ms. Mary Jane, much like the Youngbloods, learned the craft of basket making at the feet of her parents as a small child. Her baskets are in homes and local museums throughout the Southeast. In early 1990 Estel Youngblood passed away. It appeared that the seminar was doomed, but Gertie Youngblood and Mary Jane Prater agreed to teach if I transported them from home to Crossville and back to their homes, would get the basket supplies, and help teach. They were the main teachers until 5 p.m. Each evening after dinner they retired to their rooms to rest and sleep. I returned to the class and helped those who were working until 12 or 1 each night. In 2003 Ms. Gertie and Ms. Mary Jane became physically unable to make the trip to Crossville to teach, so I assumed full responsibility of teaching the class. I continued the fall class each year at Clyde York 4 H camp until 2015. At that point, we added a spring class. We now have an annual fall class and spring class there. I have also taught at the Alabama Folk School, Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, the Arts Center in Cannon County, a class in Tullahoma at a church, as well as private classes.
Tell us about you apprentice.
I have been working with Brenda Kucharski for years. She is a former UT Extension employee who has been making baskets but cannot make her own supplies. She is developing her skills, but needs help with the initial set up of different styles of white oak baskets, as well as learning how to access and break down a white oak pole.
Brenda Kucharski, apprentice
Describe the traditional art form or skill you are learning? How did you become familiar with it? Does anyone else in your family or community besides the master artist know about it or practice it?
I am interested in learning/refining skills necessary for making a traditional white oak basket typical of Middle Tennessee including the Cannon County Tie. Specifically, I want to learn how to:
- Locate and identify a good white oak tree for making a basket
- Harvest and break down the pole and identify and prepare the parts of the pole that are best suited for various parts of the basket
- Set up different white oak basket styles
- Sharpen my basic basket making skills
I have always had an interest in baskets and have made a variety of baskets using materials that were already prepared. My grandmother made baskets using willow and honeysuckle and my brother has made a variety of baskets using materials that were already prepared.
I was introduced to White Oak basket making through my work with the Tennessee Basket Association. I have had a keen interest in this art form but this would be my first opportunity to learn the process of identifying, harvesting, breaking down and preparing the materials from the tree, which would allow me to become an independent White Oak Basket Maker and in turn to share the skill with others.
How long have you been practicing this traditional art? Who taught/influenced you?
I have been studying basket making using white oak for 30 years but only using materials that others have prepared. I have received instructions and inspiration from Estel Youngblood, Gertie Youngblood, Mary Jane Prather, Sue Williams, Dee and Dennis Gregory, Betty Curry, Billy Owens, Scott Gilbert and Bill Smith.
Why did you want to work with this master? What goals do you have?
I wanted to work with Sue Williams because I know her work and have great respect for her as an artist as well as a person. I’ve seen her zeal for keeping this art form alive and have watched her fight for respect and recognition for those before us who have made this art what it is today in the Cannon County/Middle Tennessee area. Sue is willing to guide me in learning the White Oak basket skills I am lacking and to help me sharpen the skills I already have and she is located within a reasonable distance for this to happen.
Is this an important art form in your family, community or ethnic group? If so, why? Do you believe it is important to preserve it and pass it on?
Because of my love for White Oak and working with this medium, and coming from a basket making family, I too would like to see this art form kept alive and passed along to future generations. Those closest to the old basket makers distanced themselves from the art to “better themselves.” I appreciate the rich history of this art form and do not want to see it lost.
How do share this art form with the public and further pass it down?
I do public displays and demonstrations on white oak basket making to the extent my skills allow. My goal is to be able to secure and break down the tree and prepare my own materials for making the basket as well as expand my skills in various shapes of traditional white oak baskets. If I accomplish this I would be willing to demonstrate and instruct others using the information and skills I develop.