By Gussie Fauntleroy
(PASATIEMPO, 23 April, 1993)

When she was 11 and spending one of many summers on Nantucket Island off the Massachusetts coast, Joan Brink’s grandmother gave her a small, delicately woven basket.

“It was a beautiful, precious object, and it always had a lot of mystery to me, as far as how it was made,” Brink said.

The basket, woven tightly of tiny strips of cane and left plain in the manner of the Quakers, was known as a Nantucket Lightship basket. It was named for with her own form of Lightship-style baskets. They are small and finely woven from cane in the shapes of the original Lightship baskets, with a lid and a wooden
bottom. Some have handles Brink’s husband creates from precious woods.

On the sides and around the top, however, Brink adds strips of brown or black dyed cane in designs reminiscent of the Southwest. And in the center of the basket’s top she places intricate carvings in argillite (a type of black slate) made by Haida Indian Pat Dixon of Vancouver.

“I look at it as a cross-cultural collaboration,” she said. “The whole idea of proportion and harmony is part of the Western ideal of beauty. And if you bring in the native tradition, having the mythological piece on top, that takes it into that whole other realm.

”It’s the idea of the sacred container. I view it as that.”

Creating one of these baskets is a long and tedious process that includes hand-cutting and sanding dozens of strips of cane as a narrow as a couple of millimeters across.

The cane is soaked in water and set into a groove in the basket’s wooden bottom and then shaped around a mold. These strips of cane serve as the staves through which Brink delicately weaves the horizontal strips to create the basket.

She also makes the rim out of reed, wraps it in cane and secures it with tiny brass nails in the manner of the original Lightship basket. The carving is placed on top, and the final step is to varnish the basket.

“Weaving is a meditative process. It’s a very quiet process, so slowed down compared to the world we live in. I get lost in it. I love it,” she said.

Brink went on to develop her own style of basket, inspired by the Nantucket Lightship design. A collection of her baskets will be on exhibit through May 7 at Dewey Galleries, Ltd., 74 East San Francisco Street. An artist’s reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. tonight.

After making coiled baskets for a few years, Brink spent several vacations on Nantucket Island with her own children in the early 1980’s, and there she apprenticed to a basket maker in the traditional Lightship style.

But while Lightship baskets are plain, Brink had developed a deep interest in design and symbolism from working with Navajo style baskets. And having lived in Vancouver for a number of years, the carvings of the Northwest native culture also were important to her.

So she combined elements from three corners of the continent and came up the lightship workers who developed its design after early settlers learned the craft from the Wampanoag Indians originally inhabiting the island.

Brink kept the memory of that basket as she grew up, studied fine arts at Connecticut College and later lived in Italy with her husband, Joel Brink, an art historian. When her husband’s job took them to Vancouver, British Columbia, Brink met an anthropologist who had lived in Arizona and learned the Navajo style of coiled basketry.

He taught Brink to make coiled baskets and she then realized her love of baskets was more than leftover sentiment from the memory of a child’s prized possession.

“It was one of those things I just picked up and had an immediate affinity for. I felt like I knew this, like I’d done it before,” she said in a telephone interview from her Vancouver home.

It’s similar to the feeling she gets working in her flower garden, Brink said. An English perennial garden full of “very tender things that you can plant in this climate,” her garden has become well known in the Vancouver area. It was featured in this month’s issue of Vancouver Magazine and has been in other publications, she said.

Brink and her husband recently sold their house in Vancouver and plan to move to the Santa Fe area. Having designed a couple of gardens for friends here, she is well aware of the differences between a lush coastal garden and a water-stingy New Mexico garden, and said she’s looking forward to the challenge.

“I have an idea that the shapes of my baskets will totally change,” she said.