Stephen Zeh is an award-winning basketmaker based in Temple, Maine. Handcrafted from Maine’s native brown ash in the tradition of Maine woodsmen, Shakers and Native American basketmakers, his work is recognized for its meticulous craftsmanship and attention to the qualities of the medium. Zeh was awarded the Adrianna Farrelli Prize for Excellence in Fiber Art at the 2013 Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. You can see more of his work including baskets, woven jewelry, display cabinets and presentation boxes at stephenzeh.com
What do you love about your workspace?
One of the best things is a studio that has great light. Each of my workspaces has a large row of south facing windows. Here in Maine, in the summer the sun rises and sets far to the north so it rarely shines directly into the studio. In winter the sun’s rays are lower on the horizon so the sunlight will shine in and help warm things up during the day, however fleeting that is.
I work both in wood and metal and have a studio equipped for each. I also have a small space for leatherworking when I need work on a piece with leather. One of the nice things about having both a wood and metal studio is that when, say, I might need a tool for making a particular jewelry piece, and I want to keep from marking the metal, I can make a tool of wood in the wood shop. Often the tools I make fit the purpose better than those that can be purchased.
My studio is in the country with woods, streams and fields close by. Often when I need to sort out a problem a long walk in the woods will help bring clarity, whether it is in the business side of things, or how to go about constructing a piece, or a particular challenge in design.
What first interested you in your medium?
Before I was a basketmaker I was a trapper in the Maine woods. I used pack baskets to carry my tools and supplies. I was interested in how the old time basketmakers worked right from the tree. They used simple tools, such as an ax and a drawknife to make baskets that were strong and lightweight, and the baskets lasted a very long time. They also had a wonderful look to them that could not be duplicated by machine.
What do you think is special about the medium you work with?
The brown ash is pliant and flexible. By pounding a fresh cut log with the back of an ax, the wood will separate along the annual rings. These can be pulled from the log in long strips. The key to the wonderful quality of the brown ash is not only in its innate flexibility, but that the strips produced by the pounding method follow the grain precisely. This preserves the natural strength of the ash.
How does it inform the work you create?
The brown ash plays a big part in how I think about what I can do with the design of a piece. The pliant qualities of the brown ash allow refinement and control in the shape and form of both the woven parts of the baskets and in hand split and carved handles. The way of preparing the wood follows the grain so that it can be hand scraped, which gives the piece a unique and characteristic look. I take great care when weaving to orient the splint so that what was toward the outside of the tree is also the outside of the basket, which has a great effect on the look and feel of the basket.
What is the inspiration for a recent piece?
The tiny acorn basket pendant that I weave in 18k and 22k gold was inspired by the baskets made by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians of Maine. I learned quite a lot about basketmaking from a Penobscot Indian basketmaker, Eddie Newell. One of the favorite themes in the Native American work was to weave in basket form an interpretation of something from nature – perhaps a strawberry, blueberry, or ear of corn. The acorn was a popular design. Besides a symbol of strength and long life, and “mighty oaks from little acorns,” the acorn is an important means of substance for wildlife in much of the Maine woods. Deer, bear, turkeys, and many other woodland creatures depend on it to put in a store of energy in the fall to help see them through the long winter ahead.
I wanted to do my own take on the acorn basket. In the design I wanted an acorn with a rolled cap, something like a natural acorn. I made both a “full size” version of brown ash with sweetgrass accents in the cap, and also a miniature one that was about the size of an acorn.
In some of my miniature baskets I had leatherwork in the designs. For the leather I needed nice buckles to match the quality of the work, but I couldn’t find any to purchase. So I began to learn to make them myself. From that work on the buckles for the miniatures I found that metal could be drawn into long thin strands that would be perfect for weaving. I got the idea that perhaps I could weave a basket in metal, and so that is how the miniature acorn basket pendant in gold and in silver came about.