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."