A Memo to Pro-Lifers

Rather than take an adversarial position, those who are Pro-Life could adopt a more proactive approach, one that would advance their cause. Their understanding is that life begins at conception. Consequently, from their perspective any induced abortion constitutes murder and is illegal.

It follows that the first thing to do, is to do everything possible to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Therefore, the first step in the Pro-Life agenda would be to promote the use of contraceptives. Make all forms of them available to those women who at this stage in their lives do not want to have a child.

One important way for Pro-Life advocates to accomplish that would be to set up and fund clinics to help women (and men) who do not want to have a child to get whatever form of contraceptive they prefer and to provide the funds necessary to accomplish that objective. In that way, Pro-Lifers would significantly help. Fewer women would be placed in a position where they would choose abortion as their best option.

Since that would not prevent all unwanted pregnancies, the next step would be to provide counseling at the clinics. It would inform pregnant woman about the costs and benefits of various procedures, including one which the clinic provides: to assist her through all stages of the pregnancy and the birth and to make arrangements for the infant’s adoption once it has been successful delivered. All costs, including the support of the woman during the pregnancy, would be covered by the Pro-Life group.

The group’s objective would have been met. Once the child is born it would be placed in a family that wanted it. An induced abortion would not have happened. This Pro-Life approach would have prevented that from happening. Moreover, the pregnant woman would be less likely to be placed in a position where she would consider an abortion as her best option and she would be fully supported during her pregnancy. Along with that she would know that the child would be well taken care of. It has the additional advantage that a family that wanted and would otherwise not have a child, has one. In addition, the Pro-Life advocates were instrumental in making that happen.

It will lead to fewer women who consider abortion as their best option. Moreover, whatever time, energy, resources and funds (TERF) that the anti-abortion advocates commit to the program will further their primary objective. Furthermore, they are less likely to cause resentment and hostility and to alienate others in the process.

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Aging is Isolating

If These Old Hands Could SpeakAging is isolating. Friends move away, effectively disappear, or die off. Others drift out of the relationship. We spend less time together. The younger ones appropriately have their own agenda. It is their time to take care of themselves. Furthermore, they may have already learned what we have to offer. It’s time for them to move on and build their own life experience. Moreover, things have changed since you and I were their age, in some ways drastically. Consequently, some of the things we have to offer them are less relevant.

So what can we do? How can we address aging? One thing is certain, our time here on Mother Earth is limited. Since that is part of our reality, one thing each of us can do is do our best to take care of ourselves. By doing that we will be less of a burden on others and less of a drain on society’s resources. Another is to pay attention to our limitations. We can’t do everything and certainly not as much as we used to. I can certainly vouch for that.

We can start by admitting to ourselves that we have a finite time left here on earth. Each of us has skills and experience. We can use them to the best of our ability to take care of ourselves and to continue to make a contribution. It is a good time to decide what is important, to figure out what we really want to accomplish in the relatively brief time we have left, and what we would like to be remembered for.

Think seriously about your relationships with others. Do you have any issues with those who are still alive, where by doing or saying something now could make a difference? We can all start by acknowledging our errors. And perhaps saying, “I’m sorry. What I did was inappropriate. I certainly didn’t intend to cause you any pain or harm.” Those are some of the things each of us might consider doing while we are still alive. This is not just good advice for the old, really none of us knows how long we will live.

In that way, when we leave, and trust me we will, our departure will make things easier for those who we leave behind. 8033522652_97090eabda_oAging is part of a larger process called life. If we go through it, we are the lucky ones.

Aging brings along with it some other things. We are less mobile, feebler, more likely to forget and less able to take care of ourselves. That makes us more of a drain on others, on their time and energy. It also makes it harder for us to take care of ourselves. If others choose to devote some of their time and energy to support us, the least we can do is say, “Thank you.” It is important to remember that the care provided in our declining years also places a greater drain on society’s limited resources. For example, it leads to fewer resources being available for children’s education, for developing new ideas, or for anything else. Hopefully, each of us has put enough funds aside to reimburse those for the services they provide.

I find myself sleeping longer, taking more time to do things, and making more errors. How about you? All that takes time away from our limited time — the 24 hours in a day. That includes the time involved in maintaining contact and communicating with others, in maintaining relationships. I realize there may be a time when I can no longer drive. In order to get together, friends must come to see me. That will further limit contact and contributes to the isolation.

It is harder to make new friends. There are simply fewer people around with common experiences. My friend Jeanne is five years older than I. In our phone conversations we treasure the fact we can discuss the “good old times,” including the songs we share. Younger folk often have no recollection of them.

Often us older folks are not familiar with today’s ways of doing things — including the new ways of staying in touch, of communicating. When we grew up we did not have computers, cell phones, iPhones or smartphones. They simply did not exist. When you called someone, either the phone rang and rang; or you got a busy signal; or they answered and you spoke to them saying who you are. You talked to a real person. Today, more than likely, you are talking to a computer. It pretends to be listening and has its own preprogrammed way of doing things. How frustrating and time-consuming that is. It takes away from your limited time and energy, often without successfully accomplishing what you intended, leaving the problem unresolved. Boy, is that frustrating.

Here’s another example. You decide you want to give someone a call. You can’t remember their phone number. The old way of looking it up in the phone book doesn’t work anymore. They’ve moved and kept the old number. The area code tells you they are living in Richmond and you know they live around the corner. Oh, you forgot, they now carry their phone with them. Unlike the old days. Now you know who I am without my saying anything. You know where I am, but I have no idea where you are. Or, the only way some people communicate is by e-mail. That’s no help. You don’t have, or can’t use a computer, an iPhone or a smartphone. Perhaps you call and all you get is their answering service. Apparently they never check it. In any case they never get back to you. Even if you’ve heard about texting, you don’t have the equipment or the know how. It’s all so complicated, so frustrating. From your perspective it is a waste of your time, draining and unproductive. It contributes to the feeling of isolation.alone

Those are just some of the hassles of being an older person living in today’s world. They create obstacles even when you have no infirmities or disabilities. As we get older, as with any other complex machine, the system is likely to breakdown. The longer we hang around, the more likely that becomes. Add that to the mix, and things become even more complicated. It is harder to achieve our objectives or even to take care of one’s self. In fact, that may even become impossible.

All that, as well as the realization of it, leads to one conclusion, “Aging is isolating.”

Stepping back, however, there is a bigger picture. The fewer relationships we have — that is what isolation is all about — the less of an impact our dying will have on others. By pulling back in the relationship with us now, others are effectively going through part of their grieving process. That is only true, however, when they have already dealt with any “issues” that they have in their relation with us older folks who are still around.

“In Retirement”

People often ask me, “What have you done in the 30 years since you retired?” My answer is always the same. I tell them that I’m a nominally retired economist.

For the first two years I traveled around the Country in my Ford Aerostar van. I had reconfigured it so I could live in it or out of 5454351244_55150d2b32_oit. During the day the curtains came down so that I wouldn’t miss any of the beautiful scenery much of which was new to me. As an East Coast kid, I was used to seeing the sunrise and the horizon over water. But I had never seen it over land, the spectacular mountains, or the sunset over the ocean. What a majestic experience!

Whenever there was a craft show in the area I’d be there. I gave up on the economics of the health-care system (that’s another long story) and turned to the Economics of Fine Art and Fine Craft. I specialized in the study of the high-end craft market from an economist’s perspective. Among others, I attended the Baltimore American Craft Council Show, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, the Smithsonian Craft Show, the New York SOFA show and Wendy Rosen wholesale shows. There I met and became friends with a number of fine craftspersons from all over the country. I studied the market’s characteristics, met and worked with the artists, and lectured on issues that concerned them. They included: ‘Pricing your work’; ‘Choosing your marketing venue’; ‘Functional and aesthetically pleasing vs. solely ornamental’; and ‘Your markets and its submarkets’ .

After two years on the road, I decided it was time to settle down. Initially, I thought I would go back to Chapel Hill. That’s not the way things worked out. I spent part of the two years taking care of my mother. She spent the eleven months before she died at the end of November 1986 in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. (Another long story.) When I wasn’t on the road I lived in her apartment and experienced the hubbub the of the Village.

After her death I needed to get away. I’d been to St. Thomas in the USVI with my ex-wife, many years earlier. (Another long bernieonstjohnstory.) But I had never been to St. John. I decided that it would be the ideal place to go. Never did I know! So my son Paul and I took a trip down there.

St. John turned out to be quiet, peaceful, beautiful, warm, sunny, a tropical island with a saltwater pool they called the ocean. But mostly it was the people, the locals, the St. Johnians who I really liked. They were so friendly, so accepting, so welcoming.
On the boat back to St. Thomas to catch the flight up to the States, I turned to Paul. Before I could say a word he said, “Yes, I know Dad.” Six months later I moved to St. John and never expected to leave. For the 18 years I lived there, every time I took the ferry from Red Hook to Cruz Bay I felt like I was going home. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of my story.

Even as a teenager, when we moved from Queens in New York City to Wonderful Western North Carolina, I was fascinated by relatively isolated communities. I called them ‘island communities’. For me it opened up the question, How were they able to survive, often over generations, given the limited resources that were available and with little contact with the outside world? What was their way of life?  What could we learn from them?

Initially I decided to work on a project I called “The Living History of the Caribbean”.documenting the people, their culture and their crafts and products. During earlier times they made a number of important items locally. They included the boats, dwellings, stonewalls, fish pots, baskets and musical instruments. All were made from local materials using simple tools and their fine skills that they developed over generations.  My intention was to find the skillholders who were still around that knew how to produce them. I wanted them to produce the product so I could document and preserve the techniques of production; showcase the quality of their work; and show how their products contributed to the local economy. That way the process would be preserved for future generations. Once the skillholders were gone their process would be lost with them.

Mr. Herman Prince's, St. John Market Basket.
Mr. Herman Prince’s, St. John Market Basket.

As a starter, after I settled there and developed a friendship with Mr. Herman Prince, St John’s premier basketmaker-teacher, I decided to study St. John baskets.  He said that I couldn’t write about them until I learned how to make them. So taking his advice, I took his class. Not only did I learn how to make the baskets, I learned about the St. John history and culture that made them possible. It led to the article I published in The Clarion: America’s Folk Art Magazine, published by The Museum of American Folk Art entitled, “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John” (Summer, 1990, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 52-59) In it you can see a picture of Mr. Prince. You can also see an image of his fine handiwork in A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets by Nicholas R. Bell (p. 144). His basket is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection.

Along the way, I put together a collection of 25 baskets. Included are some exceptionally fine baskets made by Mr. Prince, Capt. Victor Sewer and Ms. Louise Sewer. Their other baskets  are more elaborate than Mr. Prince’s St. John Market Basket in the Smithsonian collection. My hope is to create a video that documents the collection and honors the baskets and their basketmakers, all of whom have since died.

Bernie and his good friend, Mr. Guy H. Benjamin (Benji), who he met while living in the USVI.
Bernie and his good friend, Mr. Guy H. Benjamin (Benji), who he met while living in the USVI.

Working with the elders revealed that an independent, self-sufficient  free black community had existed on St. John’s East End from the late 1700s. That was 50 years before emancipation! It also led to my twenty-five year friendship with Guy H. Benjamin (Benji). He was acknowledged by all as St. John’s elder statesman. Benji and I spent many, many wonderful hours together until his death in at the age of 98 in 2012. We collaborated on a detailed study of the East End community from the 1790s to 1956. 

I promised not to tell you any long stories but I do have to tell you a short one. I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible. St. John was home. I never intended to leave there. In January 1999 I was in  the “bush” at Cinnamon Bay collecting hoop vine with my friend, Ralph Prince. Ralph has a sideline — basketmaking. For those of you who don’t know, “hoop” is what St. John baskets are made from. We were gathering it for his dad, Herman Prince.

I developed back pain and went to see my chiropractor, Dr. Alex Politis. He didn’t like what he was seeing and suggested that I go to the Clinic — the Myra Keating Smith Clinic. (Be careful Bernie, that’s another long story or two or more, in fact.) The short of it is that Dr. Barrett suspected I was having a heart attack but did not have the enzymes necessary to test for it. So she sent me off to the hospital on St. Thomas. (I had to get in an ambulance, an ambulance boat, then another ambulance before I could get there.) Their conclusion, at about one in the morning, was that I had a liver problem and they sent me home. After taking a taxi to Red Hook, I had to wait for the next ferry to Cruz Bay. It left at six in the morning. The next day I was diaphoretic, so drove myself to the clinic and was sent back to the hospital on St. Thomas. I went through the same routine all over again. This time they put me in intensive care.

I had had a heart attack. When I was released from the hospital, a friend accompanied me to the States. The long story short, at Duke University Hospital I had a CAB4X, a four vessel coronary bypass operation. After recovering I went back to St. John and split my time between there and Chapel Hill for a while. Although I never intended to leave St. John, I eventually decided to move back to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. The health-care was better there. That’s the short version.

Initially, I intended to continue working on the economics of high-end craft. However, based on my recent experience with the health-care system, I decided to resume my study of it. After returning to the States, I met Erin Coyle, an herbalist, massage therapist, wellness counselor and yoga teacher. Those are just some of her talents, as you will see. We found each other, developed a friendship and a fine working relationship.We decided to work together on a book entitled, “The Imperfect Health-Care Market: Making it work for you”, (remember imperfect markets is my specialty). Along the way we put together a website to let people know what we were doing. Check it out — www.imperfecthealthcaremarket.com.

We soon realized, however, that the health-care system was seriously broken. It was in the control of the stakeholders who had manipulated the legislative process to their benefit. Whatever we had to say would not be heard. So rather than waste our time, we went back to each of our true passion — Art. We have just published “The MiniBook: A Guide to Self Care, Volume I”. It is based on sayings that come from my experience and images to go along with them based on hers. It has been well received. There’s more to come. Volumes II-V are on their way!

Erin also convinced me that I should start “blogging”. My first response was “Blog? What’s a blog?” Obviously, I took to the idea and very much enjoy writing posts and getting feedback from my readers. (Thank you, very much.)

That’s how I spent my first 30 years in retirement. If you’re interested in seeing what I am doing now and planning for the next ?? years, check out my blog post entitled, “At 87”.

Some people say to me, “You call this ‘retirement’?” And I say, “Yes, it certainly is.” Do you know why? Because my definition of retirement is doing what I want to, when I want to do it. Retirement has given me the opportunity to take care of myself and it keeps me involved and engaged. I particularly enjoy working with the younger generations, sharing experiences, learning from them and using my training and experience to help them understand and cope with the world, their world. What could be better than that?

You Should Have Been an Architect

After reading my blog post about Fieldston, my friend Don wrote, “You should have thought about architecture — you have a keen eye for design, which is a good start, but also a keen mind for function — as in the design of the porches facing south.” That opens up a backstory, or to use the term my friend, Grace Camblos, facilitator of writing workshops taught me — it’s a prompt.

As a teenager I studied, and was enamored with, the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Moreover, I was a Bauhaus kid — Form follows Function. Even at that age I was always designing buildings, laying out floor plans and seeing how to correct the problems in the buildings I was working in and the projects I was involved with. I have always been interested in helping determine ways of utilizing the resources that the environment makes available while still maintaining its potential to do that and in preserving its natural beauty. See my blog post on the cabin I lived in when I was fourteen.

Orthographic of stairs
Orthographic of stairs

In shop, I took up woodturning under Mr. Kent and made a Lazy Susan. I kept it for years, but it never met my standards. Mr. Houghton, who was the head of the shop, taught mechanical drawing. One day he was attempting to explain to one of my classmates what the orthographic of a model he was holding would look like. I’m almost willing to bet my bottom dollar that you don’t know what an orthographic is. Imagine the two-dimensional images of a three-dimensional object — front view, top view and side view — on an 11” x 16” sheet of paper. That is an orthographic. I grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper and sketched out what the model would look like, including the dotted lines for the edges that were not directly visible. “That’s what it would look like” Mr. Houghton said to the student. He asked me if I would like to take mechanical drawing. “Sure” was my reply.

Now let me introduce you to another concept. Again I’m almost certain you are unaware of it. It is called the “error of enclosure”. You start the mechanical drawing at one corner — for each of the three images — work yourself along the first, second, third and fourth side and if all goes well you are back to the spot where you first started. The distance between where you started and where you actually ended up is called the error of enclosure. For me it was always too large. Although I could easily see what the image should look like, it never came out the way it should. So I gave up on mechanical drawing. I learned later in life than my fine coordination skills are poor.

Let me say that, at the time, the first step on the road to becoming an architect, was as an architect’s apprentice. In that role you were responsible for creating the plans and images of the structures. It was done by using mechanical drawing. Computer assisted graphics did not exist. Need I say more?

Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri
Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri

Later in life I worked with the well-known bellmaker/architect, Paolo Soleri. I traveled with him from his home in Phoenix to Arcosanti, the village he designed, constructed and ran. Both the ideas and the implementation are important. However, they don’t have to come from just one person. It is important to be open to and listen to those of others. I learned from Solari by counterexample that regardless of how creative and imaginative you are, it is very important to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of those who are working along with you. All the answers do not come from the person at the top, even if he/she is in control. You can look up to him/her but they are not God. You are all part of a team.

I also considered set design as a career. After checking around I found there were two schools — Yale and Carnegie Tech. However, at the time, the employment opportunities were very limited. They were either on Broadway or summer theater. There was no TV. I first saw TV on a cathode ray tube at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. However, it did not begin to flourish until the 1950s after World War II. Here again my lack of mechanical aptitude and skills came into play. I did not think I was good enough to make it under those conditions. So I gave up on that as well.

I have always been fascinated by architecture and by structure, function and design. And by the relationship of structures to the land around them, to their environment. In spite of that, I decided not to become an architect. Who knows what would have happened if I had grown up knowing a fine, supportive architect who had taken me under their wing or if we had computer graphics at the time.

So, Don, that is why I didn’t become an architect.

I have been able to use those interests and skills in the field that I have chosen — economics. I also added the fascination and understanding of process — the steps necessary to get things done — that I learned working in manufacturing as a teenager. And then there is my love of the arts; architecture being only one of them. In college, my art history professor, Dr. Clemens Sommer, taught that “Art is a product of the culture”. Since economics is an essential component of the culture,  I have been able to incorporate all of those concepts, interests and skills into my work in economics. See Behind Each Work of Art to learn more about how I have done this.

Behind Each Work of Art

David
Statue of David, by Leonardo da Vinci

There is more Behind Each Work of Art then the artist’s imagination, creativity and skill – much more. Frequently when you look at a beautiful work of art you have no idea of how it was made or what it took to make it. The process is lost. That is especially true when it was made in the distant past and when it has attributes that make it special. That is even truer — if that is a word — of the economic conditions and the culture that made its creation possible. When the work of art is massive and, as in some cases, when it took many years or even generations to create, there is always the open question about the conditions that made its creation possible. Importantly, when it took many, many workers to create it, they had to be supported and provided for during the entire time. How the societies were able to accomplish that, and how the works of art have survived the ravages of aging, wars and hostilities, as well as the process of production — how they were created and what made their creation possible — is lost to history as well.

Some of the renowned works of art that have survived are the Pyramids in Egypt, the Mayan pyramids and temples, the Taj Mahal and Hagia Sophia, the Turkish Cathedral in Istanbul. They are still around to be seen, experienced and admired. In part because they were made of materials, like stone and metals, that survive the ravages of time and the elements. Art works made of other materials, like wood, sod, leather, cloth or ice, are not so lucky.
Baskets are a classic example. Almost every society has them in one form or another. They were made from local materials.
Mr. Herman Prince's, St. John Market Basket.
Mr. Herman Prince’s, St. John Market Basket.

As with every other art form and craft, some reach of the level of fine art. Some of the contemporary American ones that have reached that level are in the Smithsonian Collection. They can be seen in A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets by Nicholas R. Bell (Renwick Gallery of the American Art Museum distributed by the University of North Carolina Press). Unlike the buildings, monuments, and artifacts that have survived, all we know about the baskets of yesteryear is the impression that they left in pottery shards — the remnants of the pots they were used to make. We don’t know what the baskets were made of or how they were made. The same is true for all the other works of art that degraded naturally or were lost through the ages. My art history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Clemens Sommer, based the course on the concept that “art is a product of the culture”. It is interesting to reflect on the double meaning of the word “product” in that context.

It is important to recognize that behind every work of art there is a process.  Along with it is the creator’s skill that is required to bring it to fruition. Often it is a skill that only they possessed and held as a closely guarded secret. It died with them. Moreover, the technology and the economic conditions have to be just right, to provide the components necessary to make it all happen.

Patrons, such as Isabella D'este of Mantua supported the work of Leonardo DaVinci.
Patrons, such as Isabella D’este of Mantua
supported the work of Leonardo DaVinci.

It is also necessary to support the creator and the others involved in the creative process. During the time it takes to create the work of art, the artist and everyone else involved in the process must be able to take care of themselves. Either they are able to provide the goods and services involved themselves or someone else must provide them. It could be a spouse, partner, a friend. a patron or the result of a grant. The bottom line is that without those goods and services and that support the piece would not, could not exist. Furthermore, the culture has an important role. In addition to providing the technological and economic conditions that made it possible, it gave rise to the idea — the concept — and it acknowledged the importance of the work of art once it was completed.

The acceptance and approval of the work of art is manifest when someone purchases it. Both the buyer and the artist are made better off. Its new owner was willing to give up the purchase price and whatever else they could have bought with it. The artist leaves with the funds that hopefully allows him/her to achieve their objective, with the realization that someone liked the work enough to pay the asking price. Perhaps it will encourage them to create additional pieces. In addition to the artist’s time, energy, resources, and funds (TERF), other materials, tools, and equipment are used to create the work of art– to bring the idea into its physical form, someone else’s TERF had to be used to make and provide them. They are integral to the piece. It could not exist without them.
As important as the artist’s contribution is, the role and value of the goods and services provided by others cannot, and should not, be neglected. Typically, those who provided them, expect to be reimbursed for their contribution. They are part of a bigger picture. When viewing any work of art, whether it was created in the distant past or more recently, it is important to understand the work from the perspective of this broader context. The preconditions that led to it must be present. Important as it is to acknowledge and honor the work itself and its creator, it is equally important to understand the economic, technological, and cultural conditions that made the work of art possible. Behind each work of art is a great woman: The Earth Mother.

Think Before You Say “Yes”

Last August I talked about the Cost of War and how taking it into consideration beforehand improves our understanding and choices. In this post I would like to show how those deliberations help in our day to day decisions as well.

When someone asks you to do something — anything — think before you say, “Yes”. As adults our primary responsibility is to take care of ourselves first. That involves providing the basic inputs required to survive. It also includes fulfilling any commitments and obligations that we have taken on including the tasks involved in every day living. Either we perform the required tasks ourselves, provide goods and services to others in exchange for the ones they provide us, or earn the income necessary to purchase them.

Regardless of how we get those goods and services, what we use up is our own time, energy, resources and funds. Let’s call it our TERF. Since there are only twenty four hours in a day, the amount of TERF each of us has available is limited. Survival requires that certain things be done first including making sure we have enough of the basic inputs — clean air, fresh water, food, rest, clothing and shelter. Providing for them is our primary priority. That always requires a certain amount of our TERF. Another priority is allocating the TERF required to fulfill any commitments and obligations we have taken on. They include those involving our spouses or partners, having and raising children, taking care of sick or aging parents, friends or animals, etc. Here again, each of them requires more of our limited TERF.

Continue reading “Think Before You Say “Yes””

Baskets? Yes, Baskets!

virgin_islands_national_park__virgin_islands_usSomething happened recently that I’d like to share with you. I’ve decided to change tacks and follow my heart and my gut. Together, Erin Coyle and I have been trying to help others understand the broken health-care system and how to work their way around and through the intricacies of it.  We’ve enjoyed doing it and have even gotten some favorable responses. From time-to-time some of the ideas have shown up as blog posts or as topics on my website: www.imperfecthealthcaremarket.com.

Early in November, I got a call from the St. John Historical Society. They were planning a meeting in December honoring St. John baskets, and they asked me to come down to talk about them. The Virgin Islands, volcanic in origin, rose out of the ocean like mountaintops cropping out of the sea. The two larger ones are St. Thomas and St. Croix. The smallest — St. John — is where I lived for eighteen years. When I first moved there in 1987, I studied St. John basketry. Through basketry, I met Mr. Herman Prince, St. John’s premier basketmaker and basketry teacher. When I told Mr. Prince that I wanted to write an article on St. John baskets, he said, “Before you write an article about baskets and basketry, you

Mr. Herman Prince. St John's premier basketmaker and teacher.
Mr. Herman Prince. St John’s premier basketmaker and teacher. (Picture courtesy of the St. John Historical Society.)

should learn how to make one.” So I took his course at Hawksnest. Not only did I learn how to make a basket, I also learned much about the culture. In 1990, I published a basketry article, entitled, “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John,” in The Clarion, the magazine of The Museum of American Folk Art. My interest in basketry didn’t end there; during my 18 years on St. John, I collected more than 25 baskets, many made by preeminent St. John basketmakers.

The phone call from the St. John Historical Society got me thinking. Sometime in late November, I pulled the collection of baskets out of the attic, looked them over, and realized how special and beautiful they are. Five of Mr. Prince’s baskets arein my collection, as well as others from St. John basketmakers such as Louise Sewer; her daughter, Lorrel; Victor Sewer; Felicia Martin; and Ina George. I also own a basket made by renowned basketmaker Jackie Abrams, who visited St. John in 1993-94.

Looking over my baskets, I thought, “Wow – some of these baskets really are fine art.”

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum had just launched a basketry exhibit: “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” on display from October 4, 2013 to December 8, 2013. Looking over the catalog, I realized that one of the 63 baskets in the exhibit was made by my old friend and teacher, Herman Prince! His “St. John Market Basket” was in the exhibit and is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection; you can see it on the exhibit’s website and on page 144 of the show catalog. One of Jackie Abrams’ baskets was also in the exhibit as part of the Cole-Ware Collection.

I began to really think about my time on St. John, especially the time I spent with the basketmakers. Many basketmakers that I knew, including Mr. Prince, have already died. I quickly realized that if I don’t tell the stories about them, valuable information about the basketmakers and the baskets will be lost, forever.

Preserving the collection – and the stories that go with it – is important not only so people can learn about St. Johnian basketry and its relationship to the culture; it can even preserve and pass on the art of basketry itself. One of the baskets in

Mr. Herman Prince's, St. John Market Basket.
Mr. Herman Prince’s, St. John Market Basket.

the collection is a miniature St. John basket with a cover, made by Ms. Lorrel Sewer. She learned basketmaking – the form called wist work – from her mother, a premier basketmaker in her own right. Ms. Lorrel gave me the basket for the collection in 2000. A number of years later, I got a call from her asking if I would be willing to send it back to her. She wanted to make another one, but she had forgotten how to make the cover.

Ms. Lorrel had lost that skill, and there were no other basketmakers alive to teach her. Because I had preserved the basket by keeping it as part of the collection, she was able to re-learn how to make a basket cover by studying her own work!

So what I’ve decided to do is to make a video that documents my collection of baskets. It will bring the baskets and their history to light and to life. It will honor the basketmakers who came from the small, isolated island community of St. John. I want to help tell the story of how they raised the level of the baskets they produced to museum-quality fine art. I want to make sure that the stories, memories, and culture of these beautiful people will not be lost! I plan to donate the video and  all of the baskets in the collection to the St. John Historical Society. I want to honor the makers and help preserve their stories and culture for future generations of historians, visitors and viewers.

In short, I have decided to follow my true passion. For now, the other important things we have to offer will just have to wait.