'Native Baskets' exhibit to open at SLO history center

slinn@thetribunenews.comMay 1, 2013 

At first glance, the intricately patterned baskets on display at the History Center of San Luis Obispo County's headquarters seem impossibly delicate.

Look closer, however, and you’ll realize they’re sturdy enough to hold handfuls of acorns, scoops of seeds and gallons of water, even squirming babies.

“Native Baskets: The Spirit That Binds” opens Friday at the Carnegie Library Museum, 696 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.

With every exhibit, “We like to capture the county in some specific way,” explained Erin Wighton, chief administrative officer of the History Center of San Luis Obispo County.

“Native Baskets” features more than 40 baskets culled from collectors across the county, ranging in size from a two-inch-wide gift basket no bigger than a doll’s hatbox to a cone-shaped, leather-capped burden basket measuring roughly two and a half feet long. They’re paired with dioramas from Cuesta College’s Hollister Adobe collection and sand paintings inspired by the Painted Rock pictograph site at the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

According to exhibit curator Nancy Hillenburg, baskets have always held a central place in the lives of California’s native peoples.

Pottery was rare, so communities up and down the Pacific Coast coiled, plaited and twisted natural fibers such as cedar bark, pine needles and yucca root into containers, which were then used to cook meals and collect, carry and store supplies.

For instance, the textile historian said, crafty cooks would fill waterproof baskets with water or acorn meal, then heat the contents by adding round, fire-scorched stones. They’d grind that meal in bowl-shaped bottomless basket hoppers placed over mortar stones.

Baskets shielded heads from the elements, held ashes and cradled babies. They also played a role in leisure activities — with gamblers tossing tar-filled nutshells at gambling trays embroidered with porcupine quills dyed lichen-yellow.

Although “Native Baskets” features pieces from as far away as Alaska and Arizona, the exhibit has only one Northern Chumash basket: a sack-shaped water carrier made of coiled carex sedge and coated with pizmu tar. Split stitches and other factors mark the vessel, on loan from the South County Historical Society’s Paulding House, as unique to the area, Hillenburg said.

The same cannot be said for a basket borrowed from Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which features a distinctive striped rim and black-and-red rattlesnake pattern. Although originally identified as Chumash, Hillenburg suspects the vessel was actually made by the Yokuts people.

Accurately identifying many of the baskets has proved tricky, the textile historian said, especially since they’ve been in storage since the history center underwent a $1 million renovation about 15 years ago.

“They don’t come with labels,” she said, so the history center had Arroyo Grande historian Steve Morrison verify their origins.

“Native Baskets” doesn’t just focus on basketry’s past, Wighton said. The exhibit also pays tribute to modern basketmakers such as Chumash tribal member Tima Lotah Link.

“This is a tradition for the Chumash that is not gone,” Wighton said. “You think of them as utilitarian objects for Native Americans’ daily lifestyle, but (they’re) also (their) cultural identity.”

If you go ...

The History Center of San Luis Obispo County is officially unveiling “Native Baskets: The Spirit That Binds” with an opening night reception at 5 p.m. Friday. Docents will be on hand at the Carnegie Library Museum, 696 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo, to answer any questions.

“Native Baskets” will be on display in the museum’s main exhibition space for at least a year, next to a smaller version of the previous exhibit, “French Connections in San Luis Obispo: “Art, Wine and Exploration in San Luis Obispo County.”

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