Barbara Francis’ hands moved carefully, weaving long, thin strands of brown ash wood around a wood form as she worked one recent morning on her latest basket creation, which will be a fruit bowl. Francis was sitting on a couch in her Indian Island home, a wood stove going strong on the other side of the room, while five other baskets were perched on a table in front of her.
All the baskets were in different stages of completion. Some were awaiting adornment and decoration with traditional sweet grass. Others needed to be finished around the rims, to hide the rough edges of the woven ash.
Although Francis was working on the fruit bowl basket, which was commissioned by a customer in Connecticut, the award-winning and nationally recognized Penobscot basket maker is trying to finish other projects in time for Saturday’s Maine Indian Basketmakers Sale and Demonstration at the University of Maine Student Recreation and Fitness Center.
The sale, which is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., is an important event for both the public and about 40 other artisan basket makers who work in the tradition of the Wabanaki tribes of Maine, including the Penobscot Nation, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseets and the Micmacs.
It’s a chance for about 40 artists to meet their public, sell directly to the customers and forge relationships with around 1,000 annual attendees.
This winter, however, the show will be even more important to both the crafters and public considering the Oct. 31 closure of the Wabanaki Art Center gallery in Old Town.
The gallery was operated by the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, which is hoping people who purchased baskets and other items at the gallery will take advantage of their only chance in the holiday gift-giving period to visit with a large group of artists and buy directly from them.
“Like a lot of other rural artists, our artists tend to be [living] on the edge economically,” said Theresa Secord, the executive director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and a basket maker herself. “I would say 90 percent of our artisans live on one of the Maine Indian reservation communities. This is a very important business opportunity for them to get some sales and also to make some other connections with the museums.”
In the seven years the gallery was open, artists from Maine’s four tribes displayed and sold their creations, all in the complex with other gift shops. Sales peaked in 2006, Secord said, but the economy caught up and sales slowed down.
The storefront took another hit when Old Town Canoe moved its facility from downtown to the former Kagan Lown building on Gilman Falls Avenue, and visitors to the legendary canoe company no longer popped into the Wabanaki gallery.
The other shops in the complex shut down, and finally the Wabanaki gallery did, too.
“It seemed abrupt, but we had been watching the numbers,” Secord said. “Our organization is small but we’re extremely fiscally responsible. We ended where we could maintain all of the important programs and still be fiscally safe. We didn’t want to get to the point where we were in debt. And after seven years, I think we did a great thing. We brought a lot of visitors to Old Town.”
Francis, for one, didn’t depend on selling in the former Old Town gallery space. She has an elaborate Web site which generates business, and she travels to shows all over the country, particularly the annual Santa Fe Indian Marketplace in New Mexico.
Still, Francis participates in the Orono show to support her fellow basket makers and connect with the public.
“I think it’s important for all of us to continue to show the public we are following the old tradition of doing the brown ash basketry,” said Francis, who is a bookkeeper as well as a basket maker, and was the subject of an Emmy-nominated documentary in 2003. “I do share that goal with [the organizers], to educate people and let people know there aren’t as many of us as there used to be.”
The UMaine show is one of only three in-state shows during the year. The others are the Native American Festival in Bar Harbor, which usually is held the first Saturday after the Fourth of July, and at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, which is held the third weekend in September.
Francis enjoys interacting with people at shows, and she manages to make a few sales and build relationships from meeting people face-to-face.
“I always say, if you have any questions just ask and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know,” Francis said as she continued work on the fruit bowl. “Pretty soon they’ve bought a basket. They can kind of identify you, they’re not just taking home a piece of something from [a big box store]. They can say, I talked to her, I remember her. Little things like that.”
The Orono event is much more than a basket sale. The university’s Hudson Museum, that coordinates the event, includes demonstrations of traditional singing, dancing, storytelling and food.
“It’s a long-standing holiday tradition here,” said Hudson Museum director Gretchen Faulkner. “With the schedule of events, it’s a great opportunity for families to come. We’ve had people fly in from New York state, the Southwest, Chicago, just for this.”
The sale also draws representatives from museums who are looking for items for their collections or gift shops.
For the basket makers, Secord said, the event is a chance to buy sweet grass and other materials, as well as baskets, from fellow artisans. Many basket makers will craft small items that can be used as Christmas presents.
The proximity of the sale to Indian Island, the home of the Penobscot Nation — the UMaine campus is less than three miles away — means Penobscots themselves have easy access to artistic items of their own heritage.
“It’s one of the few great places where tribal members can travel just a few miles and purchase great pieces of our material culture that isn’t always visible to the tribal people themselves,” said Secord, who is Penobscot. “It has become a celebration of our culture.”
For more information on the basket sale, go to www.umaine.edu/ hudsonmuseum/