Corine Pearce demonstrates how to weave a basket.
It’s a bright early Spring Saturday morning in Middletown. The warmish-cool breeze blows through the open doors of the MAC. Inside, the bright white-washed walls hold ever-changing themed art. The floor’s filled with chairs and people of all ages and backgrounds. It’s what art in any community does; it brings people together. David and I quietly find a seat in the back of the room and settle in. There’s a spirit of anticipation and expectation, but not like you would find at an art show. No, this is different. This is a calling to learn something both new and ancient, holy and practical. Quiet expectation fills the room.
Corine Pearce, our teacher who is from the Redwood Valley Little River Band of Pomo Indians, steps to the front of the room. Behind her is a table with all shapes, sizes, and styles of hand-woven baskets. She greets the room, her presence commanding and confident.
“Before we begin,” Corine starts, “It is traditional to start with a prayer and a song before any gathering.” The stillness deepens. Corine gives her thanks in prayer and song, and the room responds with a “Ho.”
“Twining is a form of weaving, and it’s universal. Historically, every ancestor around the world has made baskets. It doesn’t matter where you came from; It’s something your ancestors did.” Corine pauses and sweeps her long black-gray hair held loosely by a ponytail off the front of her black short-sleeved shirt. She continues, “Pomo basket weaving is the best in human history. That fact that many know. Pomos used at least seven different twining techniques because function calls for technique,” she explains.
“Today, you will have the choice to weave two different baskets. The first is a small acorn basket you can wear as a necklace to hold sacred things to you and connect you with the earth and your home. If you live here, this is your home.” She holds up her acorn necklace basket for everyone to see. It’s delicate, as delicate a basket I’ve seen before, large enough to hold only the smallest of treasures, topped with an acorn hanging from a beaded necklace. “The second basket you can choose to make is a traditional basket. I will demonstrate how to begin the baskets before we go outside.”
Corine finishes her demonstration. Outside, the bright sun and cool breeze are welcoming. A canvas fence encircles the yard, separating us from the world around us. Tables and chairs circle each workstation, and everyone finds materials for their chosen basket before settling down. This attempt isn’t the first for some, and they begin their baskets right away. For others, like myself, it’s all sticks and raffia without meaning or design.
“Pay attention,” Corine interrupts the chatter. “Watch what I do and don’t ask questions. It’s your mind’s job to fill in the gaps; let it do its job.” The chatter quiets, and everyone moves so they can see her demonstration. Corine holds out her soon-to-be basket and begins to weave the raffia through the sticks around and around, binding the base of the basket together. Soon everyone is modeling as she patiently makes her rounds to those needing extra help.
Before long, strangers group themselves together, weaving, talking, laughing, and weaving more. This isn’t a social event where food, wine, and friends come together naturally. This is different. It’s as if collectively, we have tapped into something ancient, pure, and as natural as the soil we walk on and the water we drink. Corine had told us earlier that weaving is universal: “It doesn’t matter where your tribe is from or what your high art was,” she said. “You still used a basket.” Weaving is incredibly satisfying, soothing, and strangely familiar, even though I’ve never made a basket before. It’s the most natural thing in the world.
Time passes, and I remember I have a job to do. I walk over to Lisa Kaplan, director of the Middletown Art Center. “Hey Lisa,” I ask. “Is now an okay time to ask you a few questions?”
“Sure,” she replies. “Let’s go over here and find some shade.”
We make our way under the branches of an oak tree where a few other women are talking and weaving their baskets together. I settle in on the bark-covered ground. Before long, we begin our introductions and settle into the conversation. Millie Simon, a Tribal Elder from Middletown Rancheria, sits across from me while Lisa holds her acorn basket and wraps raffia around the twigs; it slowly grows taller. I pull out my pen and paper.
“So how did this all begin? How did you come up with the idea?” I ask.
“Well, it all started with the water tanks, really,” she begins. “I thought they could use some artistic attention because they stand out so much on the hill after the Valley Fire. But I also felt the design should be reflective of the history and culture of this place. So I reached out to Elder Millie Simon, for input, and then Mary Wilson a MAC Board member who also works at Woodland Community College and her good friend Rose Steele from Elem got involved, which led to Corine,” Lisa explains. I pause for a moment to see if Corine is free. She’s not; she’s helping people with their baskets. So I turn back and listen more.
“It was like we wove a web of conversations and connections to make WEAVING project happen,” Lisa explains.
“Yes, that’s exactly what it was like,” Millie agrees. “We are blessed to have ancestors who endured a lot of pain and suffering to let us be here. We have a lot to offer, and the Middletown Art Center was the first to join us. They stepped up and let us show who we are, to express ourselves.”
“And thanks to the grant from the California Arts Council,” Lisa says, “We are all here. We are only as strong as we are together, just like the basket is woven from many fibers.”
I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. So I set down my pen and paper, pick up my half-finished basket, and feel grateful. It’s a strange and fitting thing that branches from a tree, twigs, and raffia bind people, tradition, and knowledge together. It’s as ancient as time itself. I realize I can do this all day long.
Stay tuned for more presentations and workshops at middletownartcenter.org.
Middletown Art Center
21456 Hwy 175, Middletown, CA 95461
OR Thurs -Mon 10:30-5 pm
Monday 10:30 AM–5 PM
Thursday 10:30 AM–5 PM
Friday 10:30 AM–5 PM
Saturday 10:30 AM–5 PM
Sunday 10:30 AM–5 PM