After a life long journey Joan Brink has finally been able to realize her dream of becoming a professional basket weaver.
By Cindy Bellinger
(THE SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN, 7 October, 2001, E1-2)

It only took a few hours in 1973 for Marvin Cohodas, an expert basket maker, to show Joan Brink how to weave strips of cane.

“It felt so familiar. I knew this was the medium I’d been waiting for,” she said. “I’d been trained as a painter and thought of myself as an artist, but I had so little time. (My husband) and I had two babies. Basket making became more of a hobby. But it didn’t matter. I knew someday I’d be able to devote my life to it.”

Today, Brink’s work is not only on the cutting edge of basketry, but might be over that edge and touching a whole new realm of art. Her baskets are shown exclusively at LewAllen Gallery.

“I’m always looking for something different. When Joan brought in her baskets, I knew at once they were well-crafted and well-defined,” said Arlene LewAllen, owner of the gallery. LewAllen, a Santa Fe art seller for 25 years, said several local clients told her they were done collecting until they saw the baskets. “They said, ‘Well, I have a small table this would look good on.’ They couldn’t resist them,” said LewAllen.

Perhaps it’s the shape of her baskets that has helped lift them out of the category of craft and set them down in the world of art. At first glance, they look like American Indian pottery.

“They combine two art forms. They’re beautiful,” LewAllen said.

The Brinks have devised a way to make baskets that curve into themselves, like a pot or vessel. Joan Brink says because of this, she’s arrived at an exciting phase of basket-making. Still, the work is time consuming, but a process that seems to fit her: “I’m methodical and patient. You can’t hurry a basket.” In the last year, she made 12 baskets. Two have already sold.

In retrospect, Brink believes her journey into basket weaving began as a child. “When I was 11, my grandmother gave me a Nantucket basket purse,” she said. The resulting artistic journey encompassed many countries, cultures and art forms.

Born in New Orleans, Brink went on to graduate from Connecticut College. While in the East she met her husband, Joel, an art history doctorate candidate. They later moved to Vancouver, B.C., where Joel took a teaching position. Then in 1980, they left their Canadian home when Joel became a Fellow at the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy. They lived in Italy for five years; summers they visited Brink’s family on Nantucket. This gave her the opportunity to learn to make the Nantucket lightship baskets, whose shapes were formed around wooden molds.

The early Quaker settlers learned basket making from the area’s Indians. In turn, when the men manning the lightships, or floating lighthouses during the last half of the 1800s, had time on their hands, they began weaving open baskets with wooden handles. As whaling took ships to the South Pacific, cane was brought
back. Now the men used cane, ventured into wooden bottoms and then began making closed baskets, which became the Nantucket purse basket. The purses became decorated with carved wood and ivory.

When the couple returned to Vancouver, Brink also began decorating her purses with black argillite stone carved by the Haida people living on Queen Charlotte Island in British Columbia. “Also Joel had always wanted to work with wood and he started making steam-formed wooden handles,” Brink said. Their baskets
first began selling for $650.

But Brink grew restless; she wanted to take basket making in another direction.

“The feminine aspect of baskets as containers has always held mystery for me,” she said, “and I was ready to explore this on a deeper level.”

After Joel retired from teaching they decided to leave Vancouver, and explored the possibility of moving to Santa Fe. Immediately they found the perfect house with the perfect garden. The move felt meant to be. After their move in 1993, Brink finally began arriving at the level of basket making she’d always imagined.

“I’d been in a transition between purses and small containers,” she said. “Other basket weavers were moving into sculpture. I didn’t want to do that.

North American Indian baskets had always inspired me and I wanted to create a dynamic vessel by adapting the lightship weaving method.”

She wanted to create a basket that curved in on itself, like a pot. The puzzle was finding a mold that could be removed once the basket was finished.

Perfecting his skill at making wooden rims and bases out of ebony and maple and other hardwoods, Joel now began experimenting with styrofoam. “I took blocks and began turning them on the lathe and that seemed to work,” he said. With the mold before her, Joan starts the weaving process; setting the upright staves for the warp; laying in the colorful design motifs; and gluing the tips of the staves to the wooden base and rim. The method has nearly become their trademark.

“No one else is doing this,” said LewAllen. “The results of her technique are new and rather remarkable.”

Using cane from Asia and the South Pacific that she dyes herself, Brink still only uses a simple wicker weave.

“I spend six hours a day, seven days a week on a basket,” she said. “I’m totally with each basket for a month. I only work on one at a time. I come to know it completely. Each basket is a response to the previous one.”

Not wanting to copy American Indian symbology, she has created her own mythology with geometric shapes that become stars and mountains. Arrows are currents of energy. Checkerboard patterns are water.

“I started developing a sort of language. Each basket tells a story,” she said.

Once a basket is complete, the styrofoam mold is dug out. Bowling out on the sides then curving in toward the top, the shapes are definitely reminiscent of pottery. It’s as if two art forms have merged. And after nearly 30 years of pursuit, Brink’s baskets are now one of a kind.

“The best part is Joel and I are doing this together,” she said, sitting in the comfortable kitchen in her home off Acequia Madre. The children are grown and off in lives of their own; and that flicker of inner knowing Brink had so long ago that some day she’d be able to devote her life to baskets has come to pass.

“I want people leaving the gallery saying they want to follow the artists. And Joan is certainly worth following,” LewAllen said.

But Brink isn’t going anywhere but deeper into her baskets. Still entranced with the shape of her baskets, Brink says she is content to stay with the mythological narratives that seem to rise out of each basket on their own. She’s always excited to see where they take her.