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February/March 2012 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Diane Daniel
Mediums Fiber

Basketmaker Debora Muhl turns sweetgrass into sculpture, deconstructing traditional forms into twisting, wild works.

Space has become as important to basketmaker Debora Muhl as the fluid coils of sweetgrass she fills it with.

“It’s this house; it’s so light and airy. See all the air?” she says, motioning toward the space between her outstretched arm and the vaulted ceiling in her sunny downstairs studio. “It’s really affected me. I’m playing with much larger empty areas now.”

After decades of working from the attic of a Victorian home in Spinnerstown, Pennsylvania, Muhl moved to North Carolina in 2009 when her husband took a job transfer. The couple bought a contemporary home just east of Greensboro whose unobstructed rooms contrasted with her former residence’s closed-off chambers.

“This house opened my mind to so many possibilities in my work,” she says.

Surrounding her is the proof – sculptural baskets sliced and spliced, and structures that appear more like physics experiments than vessels, including one that starts with a small, tight base before spilling into a cascade of loose, looping coils, like a drunken ring toss. She places some baskets in “nests” of equally contorted branches of a filbert shrub called Harry Lauder’s walking stick.

Alas, Muhl, 54, was soon to part with her muse. In the fall of 2011, she and her husband received word he was being transferred back to Pennsylvania. But her Southern home’s influence will be everlasting, she says.

Muhl’s only frustration while living in the South, other than being away from her three grandchildren, was that people constantly confused her sweetgrass with the type native to South Carolina and used in Gullah baskets.

“I get asked about it all the time. What I use has no relation to that,” she says. “Gullah grass grows in marshes, it’s hollow and hard to bend.”

Her sweetgrass, Hierochloe odorata, grows in the northern United States and Canada and is considered a sacred plant by Native Americans. Muhl appreciates its strength and pliability and its aromas reminiscent of tobacco and vanilla. Like so many natural materials, sweetgrass supplies are threatened by overeager harvesting, invasive species, and human intrusion.

“It’s been such a toil to get,” she says. “People hound me for the name of my supplier. I don’t even know where he gets the grass from; he just tells me if he has it.”

Her material of choice comes with other hazards – one of Muhl’s two cats racked up formidable vet bills after snacking on the 2-foot-long strands. Now the door to her studio stays closed. 

Trained as a classical oboist, Muhl wove her first basket in 1984 as a way to occupy her time when her son and daughter were young. In 1990 she learned coiling in a one-day workshop put on by the Basketmakers of New Jersey (now the Penn-Jersey Basketry Guild), a life-changing experience.

“The next morning I started coiling – I had to build a vessel – and that was the beginning. Since then I’ve learned to make one continuous coil, coil backwards, split a piece into two or three coils.”

Muhl wraps her taut coils with threads of waxed Irish linen and sometimes ribbon to add splashes of color.

Initially she always used gourds as bases (now they’re optional, aesthetic choices), coiling around them while holding to traditional symmetrical shapes. One day, in the mid-’90s, she was embellishing an angled section of a gourd and decided to follow its flow, resulting in her first asymmetrical piece.

“I was starting to get movement and balance,” she says. “When my husband saw these crazy-looking pieces he thought I’d lost my mind – until they were the first things to sell.”

From there Muhl fully embraced a free-form contemporary aesthetic. She improvises every creation, designing as she stitches.

“I might start on a piece I think is going to be tall and slim and then it grows bulbous, or I’ll start a wall piece and it turns into a vessel. There’s so much surprise in the work; I’m completely fascinated by it.”

So, too, are curators and collectors. Muhl has shown her work and collected awards at dozens of juried exhibitions, including American Craft Council shows and the Smith­sonian Craft Show; her baskets are included in six permanent museum collections as well as in several art books. She’s represented by Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York. Her North Carolina gallery, Blue Spiral 1 in Asheville, which represents only Southern artists, reluctantly relinquished its affiliation when Muhl told them she would be returning to Pennsylvania, but scheduled a special solo show for her this spring.

“Debora has a really unique contemporary approach to a traditional form,” says Blue Spiral 1 gallery director Jordan Ahlers. “Her baskets – really they’re sculptures – have great lines and movement, twisting and unfurling. They’re unlike anything I’d seen before. It’s as if she’s taken this traditional form and deconstructed it.”

Indeed, Muhl describes her years of basketmaking as a progression from construction to deconstruction.

“Now I’ve gone even further. I think of what I’ve been doing lately as collapsing the work, of opening it up even more.” She flashes an impish grin. “Next, I really want to wreck the thing.”

Debora Muhl’s solo show at Blue Spiral 1 gallery in Asheville, North Carolina, runs March 1 – June 2. Diane Daniel is a writer in Durham, North Carolina.

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