Narrative in style, Joan Brink’s baskets speak to the past and present.
By Gussie Fauntleroy
(PHOENIX HOME & GARDEN, March, 2006, 182-187)

Joan Brink sits at her basket-weaving table, sunlight filtering through tall plants in the quiet of her Santa Fe home. Her hands are deftly and delicately intertwining imagery, ideas and cultural elements from across time and around the world, and from the span and depth of her own experiences. The artist thinks of her work as “cross- fertilization,” an appropriate term for someone as passionate about gardening as she is about the exquisitely crafted baskets she creates.

Seeds of inspiration for her art are as diverse as 19th-century Nantucket Island craftsmen, the ancient Mayan calendar, Southwestern Pueblo pottery, and sacred geometry from Italian Renaissance architecture and art.

Internationally exhibited painter Robert Kelly of New York and Santa Fe, a part-time neighbor of Brink’s and collector of her work, remarks: “Joan has a knack for pulling things up from the depths. The icons and emblems she incorporates in her baskets are never separate from their meaning. It’s not about decoration; it’s narrative, in spherical form. These are little poems she creates.”

Brink’s exposure to diverse cultures began as a child. The daughter of a Naval aviator, she was born in New Orleans and always lived near the ocean, up and down the East Coast. Summers were spent on Cape Cod and later Nantucket Island, off the Massachusetts coast. There, at age 13, she received her first basket, a gift from her grandmother. Brink still treasures the small, tightly woven basket, its delicate beauty undiminished after more than 50 years. It was inspired by 19th-century functional baskets, whose roots reach even farther back, to the Wampanoag tribe.

Other key experiences shaped Brink’s sensibility over time. Two years in Paris as a teen introduced her to art history. An art degree from Connecticut College in the heyday of Modernism discouraged her from painting and reinforced her love of narrative in art.

Later she and her husband, Joel, an art historian, spent seven years in Italy. For part of that time, Joan, Joel and their two young daughters lived on the Tuscan farm of a concert pianist and renowned yoga master, whose weekly gatherings brought the Brinks in contact with artists, intellectuals, and spiritual and cultural figures from around the world. Along with a rich immersion in Renaissance architecture and art, the Brinks studied sacred geometry, whose harmonious proportions Brink now incorporates in her award-winning work.

After living in Italy, the artist and her family spent 18 years in Vancouver, B.C., where Joel taught at the University of British Columbia. There, in the early 1970s,

Brink saw a show of coiled basketry by an early-20th-century Washoe Indian from Nevada. “I was blown away. I didn’t know basketry could be an art,” she recounts.

As it turned out, the professor who brought the Washoe baskets to Vancouver was a basketmaker himself, and he taught Brink to coil. From there, her attention returned to the Nantucket basket from her grandmother. On a visit to Massachusetts she found a man to teach her the plain, straight-walled Nantucket style, using a wooden mold to form the shape, in the manner of the early weavers.

Soon, Brink was developing her craft, weaving her own artistic vision into her baskets. She began collaborating with a Haida Indian sculptor who carved traditional Northwest Coast designs in argillite, a type of black slate. The carvings became centerpieces on Brink’s basket lids, just as ivory scrimshaw was used on early Nantucket basket lids.

At about the same time there occurred one of the magically serendipitous experiences that seem to be sprinkled along Brink’s path. A book came out about ancestors of her collaborator, the Haida sculptor. It seems those early Native American carvers had been influenced by the scrimshaw designs of Massachusetts whalers who had made their way around to the Northwest Coast.

“It came around in a circle,” a smiling Brink says. “So, I’ve always felt like, well, I’m supposed to be doing what I’m doing.”

Now 60, the artist has seen her path lead to Santa Fe, where she and Joel have lived since 1993 in a hand-built adobe house. It is a home that, like her baskets, serenely reflects an intermingling of aesthetics, from Zen simplicity to Southwestern warmth to traces of the maritime culture of Brink’s early life.

On a worktable in the sunroom waits the large, graceful shape of a Styrofoam form Joel carved following his wife’s design. Guided by her meticulously drawn model, Brink patiently begins to hand-fashion the basket. She weaves around the Styrofoam mold using techniques similar to those she used in weaving around wooden forms earlier in her career. Brink hand-shapes reed staves to fit the basket’s shape, and hand-dyes strips of cane to incorporate along with natural cane.

As finishing touches, Joel creates elegant hardwood elements for the basket’s base and top. A large basket may take as long as a month to complete. When the basket is finished, Brink digs out and discards the foam.

“I love the way Joan has taken an ancient practical art and brought it to another level,” notes photographer and collector Beth Henry of Santa Fe. “She translates it into an expression of her feelings for the earth and earth spirit.”

This spirit is reflected in a personal iconography—often inspired by native imagery — that speaks of abundance, celebration, time, prayer, transformation, and the nurturing elements of earth and rain. Ripples in Time, for instance, represents the Mayan concept of cyclical time. A white horizontal band is the river of time, with arrows symbolizing future and past. Where the arrow points meet, the Mayans believed, an important change or shift takes place.

Whatever the origin of the stories her baskets tell, Brink weaves into each one a sense of harmony and timeless grace. “Balance is essential,” the Master of the Southwest explains. “Balance and beauty underlie everything for me.”