Pushing Basketry’s Boundaries

Photo by Matt Rose
Photo by Matt Rose

Acclaimed Asheville basketmaker Matt Tommey can also weave a great tale. He starts his story in rural South Georgia with a young and curious country boy, a lover of the great outdoors and working with his hands. He quickly loops to the University of Georgia bookstore, where an inquisitive student stumbles upon — and takes home and studies — a willow basketmaking tome. Then he delicately guides you to Athens’ kudzu-covered riverbanks where an unconventional artist was born.
Of course, he’s the artist, and he has set the stage to share what would become a defining moment in his now storied career.

“I looked outside my apartment window, and I said: ‘There’s kudzu out there; I wonder if I could do anything with that,’” Tommey recalls. He had just discovered that the topic of his inspirational book, willow, was a prevalent basket material in Europe but not America. “So I literally went out the door with a pair of kitchen sheers and a knife and started ripping the kudzu down.”

Armed with vines and a fearless attitude, Tommey immersed himself in the world of traditional Appalachian-style baskets. He bought more books and learned and mastered the fundamental techniques of the craft. He created his own bubble, he admits, and stayed in it happily, selling his work to local folks for 15 years.

In 2009, his bubble burst — in a good way. He moved his family from Atlanta to Asheville and went from being a hobbyist to a full-time basketmaker almost overnight. He joined the Southern Highland Craft Guild, which led to a feature in a national trade magazine, which led to a call from the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery and a listing in their American artists under 40 registry, which led to invitations to teach classes at places like John C. Campbell Folk School and to collectors clamoring for his work.

As opportunity allowed, he stopped focusing on functional pieces and started creating sculptural art baskets. For those unsure of what that means, he has a clear catchphrase: “They’re to hold you’re attention, not your stuff.” While many working artists have to balance what they love with what the market demands, Tommey feels lucky his art pieces are both, saying, “Sculptural work has given me much more expression from both a spiritual and artistic perspective.”

But he hasn’t forgotten his original inspiration. “Every basket still begins with a walk in the woods,” he stresses. In addition to kudzu, he uses other invasives like honeysuckle, bittersweet, and mimosa bark. He harvests an impressive 99 percent of his materials here in the mountains to bring a natural aesthetic into a house like no painting or other type of sculpture can.

Recently, Tommey has begun working directly with interior designers and homebuilders to create large-scale, installation-oriented pieces that perfectly fit a space. He’s just designed an almost five-by-five-foot fireplace mantel using laurel from its soon-to-be-home’s property. And, he now incorporates clay, encaustic wax, and recycled copper wire into his work in ways no other makers are. “I’m always thinking how can I push the envelope of what I’m doing,” he says.

In that vein, he’s a card-carrying member of the contemporary basketry movement, which began pushing basketry boundaries around the early 1970s. And like his small but growing group of colleagues, he’s excited to continue exploring the question, ‘What makes a basket a basket?’

Whichever creative direction he takes, Tommey’s end goal is to make what he calls a uniquely American expression of art — one that’s simultaneously traditional yet completely modern.

Learn more about Tommey and browse his sculptural art baskets at matttommey.com. See Tommey at the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands, July 17-20, US Cellular Center, Asheville and at the Mt. Mitchell Crafts Fair, August 1-2, Burnsville Town Square.