1991 N.C. Heritage Award Recipient
Like pottery-making, basketry is an ancient craft that has developed
throughout the world. In North Carolina, baskets were once indispensable
to the agricultural and fishing economies of Native Americans
and later settlers. They were needed for gathering crops from
fields and vegetable gardens, collecting eggs, catching fish,
transporting produce and baked goods, and for a variety of domestic
chores such as sewing and laundry.
Thurman Strickland, a farmer from near Smithfield in Johnston
County, became a master basketmaker, though he did not begin to practice
the craft seriously until after he had retired. Mr. Strickland
was raised on a farm, and as a young boy he observed his father
make a variety of utilitarian baskets from oak-splits. Following
in his dad's footsteps, he farmed for himself for about thirty
years, before going into the carpentry business with his brother.
When his wife became ill several years later, he devoted himself
full-time to her care.
It was during this latter period that Mr. Strickland's dormant
knowledge of basketmaking was awakened by his daughter Tamara.
On a weekend visit home, she showed him materials from a basket-weaving
class she was taking, hoping to interest her father in the craft.
Mr. Strickland regarded the imported reeds she displayed with
a disapproving eye and told her that to make a basket that would
truly last, she must use the wood of a white-oak tree. He advised
her to "go cut down a tree" but later thought better of it and
decided to do it himself. So began Mr. Strickland's career as
a basketmaker. Basketmaking with traditional materials and methods
is difficult and time consuming. Though the weaving process may
appear to require the most skill, the greater part of the effort
goes to the preparation of the materials. "It takes a whole lot
of time," said Mr. Strickland. "If you don't have time, there's
no need starting in to it. And also, to have patience helps out
a whole lot. Patience and time." Considerable experience was needed
just to identify a suitable tree, which Mr. Strickland accomplished
by carefully scrutinizing the bark.
Once a tree was selected and felled, it was cut into sections, quartered,
and split into narrow, pliable strips, or "splits," from which
the baskets are woven. Over the years, Mr. Strickland perfected
his skills by combining his traditional knowledge of basketmaking,
which he gained from his father, with book research. He wove
a number of traditional forms, including egg, shuck, corn, and
gizzard baskets but also experimented with newer designs. One
of his most popular was the "key" basket, which was made to hang
on the wall next to the door. Mr. Strickland frequently added decoration
to his baskets by coloring some of the splits with his own walnut
and pokeberry vegetable dyes.
With the decline of the family farm and the ready availability
of inexpensively mass-produced farm implements, traditional basketmaking
was in danger of becoming a lost art. Mr. Strickland worked
hard to promote the craft by sharing his knowledge with others.
An expert demonstrator, he was a regular participant in the Folk
Arts in North Carolina Schools program and was featured in
many public events, including the Eno River Festival in Durham.
His efforts and commitment brought personal rewards. "I've
got a lot of happy moments out of it," he once said. "There's been
times when it would have been pretty rough with me if it hadn't
been for weaving a basket. Seem like I can forget all my troubles
when I get on basket-weaving."