I moved to St. John, USVI in the summer of 1987. As an economist, I was always fascinated by isolated small communities that were able to survive over generations, and even centuries, with very limited resources. I have also had a long-term interest in fine art and fine crafts partly in thanks to Prof. Clemens Sommer, professor of art history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He had a saying that always stuck with me: Art is a product of the culture.
When I got to St. John I realized how important basketry had been to this very small, 19½ square-mile isolated island. They were known for the fine quality baskets they produced for generations. I was fascinated by the baskets and their history. Not only were the baskets sold on the other Virgin Islands and throughout the Caribbean, they were exhibited and sold in the United States and Europe from the late 1890s and into the 20th century. That is quite an accomplishment when you realize that at the time the movement between islands was by boat under sail, and to the States and to Europe on steamboats.
It didn’t take long before I met and became friends with the Island’s premier basketmaker-teacher, Mr. Herman Prince. When I told him of my interest in writing about St. John basketry, he said, “You can’t write about them without learning how to make them.” I took him up on his suggestion and took his course. Boy, was he right. Not only did I learn how to make the baskets, I learned about the skills required and the culture that gave rise to them.
During my 18 year stay there, I met and worked with many other basketmakers. I helped them showcase and market their baskets and acquired a collection of 25 St. John baskets and related items. One of Mr. Prince’s baskets entitled, “St. John Market Basket” is at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Museum as part of The Cole-Ware Collection. It is virtually identical to one of his baskets in my collection. I also wrote about “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John” for The Clarion, America’s Folk Art Magazine.
To honor the St. John basketmakers, their baskets and the culture that gave rise to them, I have documented my experience with the St. John basketmakers in this video, entitled, “Baskets from the Island of St. John.” I invite you to take a look at it.
I hope you enjoy it. And I certainly look forward to hearing your response.
Thanks to Grace Camblos Media for video production and editing of this project.