Object Lessons

Object Lessons

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ReVision (detail), 2010; linen, silk, alpaca, hand-spun natural brown cotton; 36 x 24 in.

Few have lived life as happily steeped in materials
and handwork as James Bassler, textile artist and professor.

Bassler is a maker to his core, as evidenced by his extra­ordinary art tapestries, prized by collectors, and his eloquence on the subject of craft - down to the charming, unconscious way he peppers conversation with phrases like "weave that in" and "grasping at straws."

"I had them in the palm of my hand," he says, describing the time he gave craft materials to a class of indifferent seventh-graders and watched them grow excited about learning. It was 1963, and he was in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, an art education major with a minor in social studies. For his student-teaching requirement, he had been assigned to a junior high to cover world history and geography from the beginning of time to the Renaissance - all in 20 weeks.

"I realized the first day that the students could barely read, barely write. They had no concept of the world or what had come before them," recalls Bassler, today a youthful 77. "I had to somehow get their attention. And I felt the best way to do that was to engage their hand-eye-mind relationship, get their hands actively working with materials that represented what early peoples were faced with."

So he had the kids make nets out of sisal, baskets out of newspaper, pinch pots from clay. To his delight, the book learning easily followed. "They were
so [eager] to find out what the Egyptians had done, and if they were the same things we had done. How did they catch fish? Did they make fishnets like we did? How did they irrigate? They asked intelligent questions because they had information based on their own experience." The story of civilization, they discovered, was about resourcefulness, ingenuity, and creativity - in other words, about the things people made.

For Bassler, it was a powerful affirmation. For as long as he could remember, he'd had an affinity for making. His father, major league baseball catcher Johnny Bassler, learned to hook rugs growing up in a Mennonite community, and continued to do it as a hobby in the off-season. As a young man in the 1950s, following military service in Europe, James succumbed to wanderlust and traveled through the Middle East and Asia, dazzled by the traditional crafts he saw. After
he earned his teaching degree, he and his wife, Veralee, a ceramist, took their young family to live in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they ran a craft school for several years.
In 1975 he joined the art faculty
at UCLA and taught textile art there until his retirement in 2000. He was named to the American Craft Council College of Fellows in 1998.

The Basslers now live in Palm Springs, where he spends much of his time at his loom. (His latest project is a re-imagined American flag that asks a question: What if the Incas had landed on Plymouth Rock?)

His encounter with those seventh-graders has stayed with him as a kind of touchstone. Last fall it was the basis for a well-received talk he gave at the "Crafting a Nation" conference, part of the first-ever American Craft Week in Washington, D.C.; he had kept some of the simple artifacts made by the kids and used them as props. His message: Making is a gateway to learning in all subjects - history, language, even math and science - so let's get arts and crafts back in our schools.

Given today's digital-oriented, Facebook-obsessed youth culture, Bassler may be on to something. Parents and teachers, are you listening?