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ARTICLE ARCHIVE
January/February 2003

PROFILE

Arlene McGonagle:
Expressive Baskets

Photo of the artist by Tony Avila.
Bean basket, asparagus basket, tomato basket, cucumber basket. Baskets for picking and baskets for selling: each individual to its contents and task.

Growing up on a farm in western Massachusetts, surrounded by baskets for everyday use, Arlene McGonagle took no particular notice of them. In her 30s, however, while traveling with her husband in Florida, she happened upon a course in Appalachian mountain basketry being taught in an orange grove. She watched and wove for a week. And inaugurated a sustaining passion.

Advancement of McGonagle's techniques engendered invitations to teach; she shared her vocabulary of functional baskets augmented with dyed reeds and natural materials. Ongoing studies embraced Nantucket baskets, and her skills in this heritage fostered a reputation in the basketmaking field. She was president of the Northeast Basketmakers Guild from 1992 to 1994, yet started to feel that she wanted more than making, selling at craft shows, and teaching. In 1995, she applied to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth; after a preparatory year of foundation classes, she was accepted into the M.F.A. in Artisanry program.

McGonagle saw grad school as an opportunity to broaden her design skills. Her studio work - her baskets - became self-expressive; they were about security, the life-and-death issues we deal with daily, and safety. The latter manifested itself in baskets with nests. She expanded her knowledge of fiber techniques and, along with the required academic courses, took women's studies. Her exposure to feminist thinking and art had significant consequences. McGonagle volunteered at a women's shelter, which influenced the content of several baskets. She reflects that the linen-wrapped hardware cloth in some of her pieces is a metaphor for women (a soft appearance with a firm, resilient structure).

Lines of Verse, 2001; wire, silk and kyosei-shi paper, knotted waxed linen; 9 by 8 by 8 inches. Photo: James Beards.

Lines of Verse exemplifies McGonagle's nestlike forms and was inspired by an exhibition theme of "lines." The text that appears inside the inner chamber and spews from it is from Emily Dickinson's Acts of Light. To honor the poet, the words are written on silk paper. Dickinson not only provided the concept for the piece, she influenced its outcome. McGonagle wrote the script on a light box, and the concentration and exclusion of all else conjured Dickinson's essence. This private interaction prompted the placement of writing only on the inside of the vessel, but the lines' enduring influence on McGonagle and others is visualized as a timeless outpouring.

Recent explorations have eliminated the hardware cloth to allow the woven components (paper, metal) to stand alone. Incorporated with the structural forms is Peruvian pickup weaving: the cotton offers complementary and contrasting color and texture.

McGonagle maintains a studio as a professional basketmaker in Warren, Rhode Island, and teaches at a community college. The uniqueness of baskets in her childhood have sown a bountiful harvest.

-- D Wood

But a Tear Drop (detail below); wire, paper, cotton floss; 9 by 8.5 by 8.5 inches.
 
Closed Windows (detail below), 2001; wire, paper,
waxed linen; 12 by 8 by 8 inches.
 
Peruvian Pick-up #1 (detail below), 2002; wire, waxed
linen, paper, cotton; 8 by 7.5 by 7.5 inches.

D Wood is a freelance writer specializing in fine craft.





This profile first appeared in:

Mar/Apr 2003


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