Smithsonian exhibit includes work of local basket maker

Posted November 20, 2013 at 2:05 pm

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Jo Campbell-Amsler shows off two of her very own baskets, which are part of the Cole-Ware Collection, currently on display at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The basket on the left is a sharing basket and the one on the right is a willow sieve basket. (Photo by Kim Brooks)

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This is a photo Amsler’s friend took of her baskets on sale inside the Renwick’s gift shop, to coincide with the museum exhibit. The museum purchased 16 of her baskets to sell at their gift shop. (Photo submitted)


By Kim Brooks, Express Editor

How many people can say their work is on display at the country’s largest, most prestigious museum in Washington, D.C.? One Monticello woman can now add the honor to her list of accomplished work.

Jo Campbell-Amsler has been making willow baskets for a little over 30 years now. It started out as a hobby, passion and now career, as she teaches classes all over the country to fellow basket weavers.

“I took a class years ago and just kept working with it,” Amsler said of her passion.

Using a cash crop she grows right on her property in rural Monticello, Amsler prefers different varieties of wild willow. She said this willow, as opposed to willow trees (what most people think of when they hear “willow”), lends itself to basket weaving. Amsler plants seven beds and eight different types of willow. Each variety has its own characteristic such as color and diameter.

Aside from teaching her own classes and seminars for 20 years, Amsler also attends many conventions around the country and around the world. She taught in Canada and worked with weavers in Ireland, Scotland and will travel to France this coming summer.

“I can take ideas with me from these conventions,” Amsler said.

Teaching classes is the best of both worlds, as Amsler said she enjoys teaching and traveling.

Amsler’s name is already out there as an established basket weaver. That led to a contact for the Smithsonian exhibit.

Steven R. Cole and Martha G. Ware are the noted collectors behind “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets.” It is this collection that is on display at the Smithsonian through Dec. 8.

According to the American Art Museum’s website, the exhibit “explores the revival of traditional basketry in America during the past 50 years through works by 63 contemporary basket makers.” The baskets are all handmade; no machines were used during the process. The materials used are also “undyed, native materials” such as grasses, willow, trees, vines and bark.

“Steven (Cole) contacted me several years ago as a recommendation,” Amsler explained. She said he wanted to purchase two of her baskets for his personal collection. He chose a sharing basket and a willow sieve basket, both Amsler’s personal designs.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that Amsler received a letter in the mail from the Smithsonian, inquiring about her baskets.

“I had heard rumors in the basket world that Cole was looking to do an exhibit at the Smithsonian,” she said on the project.

Amsler’s sharing basket is part of the exhibit and will go into the museum’s permanent archive collection. Her sieve basket will remain in Cole’s personal collection.

“I was very happy to hear my work would be in the Smithsonian,” Amsler said of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I’m very pleased. It’s the highlight of my career.”

The exhibit at the Smithsonian opened on Oct. 4. Amsler and her family made arrangements to fly to Washington, D.C. for the opening ceremony of the exhibit.

“We had non refundable tickets,” Amsler said, that were purchased well in advance.

Well, on Oct. 1, the U.S. government shutdown for several weeks. This meant that all federal buildings, parks, monuments, etc. would also be closed to the public, including the Smithsonian Museum.

“After they shutdown, we kept hoping they would come out of it,” Amsler said.

The family went to D.C. anyway and attended a reception at Cole’s home for the basket weavers, as well as visited Arlington Cemetery (which was not closed), Mount Vernon (George Washington’s home), listened in on the Senate and went to a former torpedo factory that is now a complex for artists.

This was Amsler’s second trip to D.C.; her first time going was on a band trip in high school. Obviously so much as changed since.

The day of the opening of the exhibit, Amsler said some of the basket makers stood out in front of the art museum, holding the yellow caution tape, as a mini protest.

“It was an embarrassment for the U.S.,” she said of the closing of so many places due to the shutdown. “There were a number of people there that couldn’t see the exhibit. There were so many barricades everywhere.”

The trip wasn’t a total bust. They saw many protestors all over the downtown D.C. area and even witnessed the woman who drove erratically up to the White House and later the Capitol and was shot and killed by authorities.

“We saw and heard sirens from the crash,” Amsler said of the commotion. “It was crazy!”

The closing reception for “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” exhibit will take place on Dec. 5. Amsler plans to return herself to finally get the chance to see her own basket on display inside the Smithsonian.

“It’s just such an honor to be included,” she said.

Aside from the exhibit, 16 of her baskets are also for sale inside the museum’s gift shop.

“The exhibit pays tribute to the functionality of baskets throughout history,” explained Amsler. “It goes back thousands of years.”

In addition to her work on display, Amsler also took part in a documentary to coincide with the exhibit. A fellow basket maker, Billy Ray Sims, made the movie. Sims personally came to Amsler’s home in July to interview and tape her in her own element.

“He (Sims) approached Cole about the movie idea,” explained Amsler of the project. “It just really adds to the exhibit.”

The movie includes a cross section of basket makers from all over the country, each using a different natural material in their work.

“It was a long 12-hour day,” Amsler said of the filming process. “This was my first time doing a movie like this for my craft. It was very well done.”

To view images and information, as well as the movie, behind the exhibit, visit To find out more about Amsler’s work, visit