Material WitnessText by Julie Dugdale
A Vermont fiber artist weaves social and cultural meaning into her colorful baskets, vessels, and home accents.
Jackie Abrams walked into a basket shop in Chesterfield, Massachusetts, forty years ago, and her entire life changed. That was the day she met shop owner Ben Higgins, who had been making traditional white-ash baskets since the turn of the twentieth century, just like his father before him. Abrams, twenty-six and frustrated by her inner-city teaching job in Hartford, Connecticut, was mesmerized by the craft and wanted to learn—but the elderly basket weaver was planning to retire. “I don’t know what it was,” Abrams says. “Everything about that shop made me want to make baskets. I had to go back many times to convince him to make me his apprentice. I talked him out of retirement.”
Abrams launched a lifetime of artistry from that six-month apprenticeship. Early on, she learned to flex her creative muscles, and today, the Brattleboro, Vermont-based fiber artist focuses on abstract, sculptural vessels in materials that range from waxed linen and recycled silk blouses to sand, stones, and wire. “The thing about functional baskets is that they’re very limiting,” she says. “I was doing it for the love of it, but I left them behind and moved on.
I really wanted to learn about color; I took a class in surface design, and learned from someone who used a pasta machine to cut paper.”
With a tendency to work in series, Abrams has become a storyteller through her art. Her narrative of choice: the shared experience of womanhood. She has developed this theme across collections such as “Spirit Women” and “Women Forms,” creating intricate pieces that symbolize, as she says, “the women with whom I share my life.” Put another way, the emotions, triumphs, struggles, strengths, and sorrows of these women inform the shapes of her pieces as she sculpts them into containers that hold their stories.
Much of Abrams’s inspiration is rooted in her extensive travels to Africa and Australia. Through women- and arts-focused nonprofits such as Cross Cultural Collaborative, WomensTrust, and SERVV, Abrams has engaged in arts development and handicraft training for villages and communities in Ghana and Uganda. Her work in these microcraft industries has helped her appreciate the concept of sustainability and encouraged creative ways to weave baskets with whatever is available—like fabric scraps or discarded plastic bags—in communities where materials are hard to come by.
Exposure to Aboriginal art during her visits to Australia, where she has taught a wide repertoire of classes through universities, conferences, and residencies, has influenced the way she approaches color in her work.
With titles such as The Matriarch, Wisdom, and Grounded, the vessels in Abrams’s “Spirit Women” collection represent the inner core of women—something that’s made of colorful memories, resilience, and even frayed edges, she says. The pieces are strong yet imperfect, constructed through an ancient crafting technique called coiling, in which Abrams compresses strips of her materials by spiraling and stitching the layered coils together as she shapes the piece. They are, she says, physical portrayals of everything that makes up the human experience. Incorporating stones and copper wire lets Abrams experiment with texture, creating bumps and focal points that mirror the journey of a woman’s life.
Texture has also become a driving force in Abrams’s most long-standing series, “Women Forms,” which showcases woven, shaped pieces that embody the essence of a specific woman. She starts by weaving cotton paper with wire to achieve the shape of the vessel, then adds an agent such as natural sands, acrylics, encaustic wax, and even paper maps to create interesting exterior surfaces. These containers bear names like Earth Woman (sand) or Woman of the World (maps).
Abrams exhibits her work at gallery shows across the nation, most recently including a Smithsonian Craft Show online auction, a Brattleboro Memorial Hospital exhibit, and a show running from September 18 through November 22 at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts.
The stories and history woven into Abrams’s baskets and containers are compelling and intriguing. But, she insists, “The techniques I use are simple and straightforward. I want what I’m trying to say to speak louder than the techniques.” •
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