There are only a handful basket weavers that make traditional white oak baskets . One is Morrison resident Sue Williams. Her baskets are currently on display at the Morrison Library, and her art has earned her a prized state award only granted each to a very select few artists, at Tennessee Governor’s Arts Award, the 2019 Folklife Heritage Award.
Strangely enough, when Williams took her first basket weaving class in 1985 at the Warren County UT Extension, she never realized that her ancestors were Cannon County weaver themselves.
Williams said that basket weaving was Cannon County’s primary income during the Great Depression. The land near Woodbury really didn’t work for major crop production, so the locals took to making and bartering baskets for what they couldn’t produce on their small farms.
These skilled craftsmen and women made functional baskets for a time before 5-gallon buckets and plastic tubs. But these folk’s dependents, for the most part, saw these skills quaint and sought better jobs.
And basket weaving was almost lost.
“Right now, to my knowledge there are two left, Williams said. “It is quite an art. It is almost a dead art.”
You can buy a basket at Walmart, says Williams, but it’s not white oak and it’s not going to have the artistic commitment to quality that you’ll find in a hand woven basket.
Her mentors Estel Youngblood, whose work resides at the Smithsonian Institute, and Gertie Youngblood, revived the art in the 1970s and 80s. By then baskets were art rather than function items.
Baskets start with a live tree, singled out for not having lower limbs. The parts of the basket are made from the trunk, and only then can it be processed into the final elements of a basket.
When Williams teaches a class with all of the materials ready to go, it still takes over four days to weave a basket.
Williams has been recognized for her craft, she was one of only nine recipients in 2019 of the inaugural In These Mountains: Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowships, a program of South Arts designed to highlight and support exemplary traditional bearers from the Appalachian region of Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina.
Williams is amazed at winning the award.
“There are so few given out,” she said. “I only know of one other person getting one. It’s a really, in my opinion, special award.”
Williams teaches basket weaving and presents at the annual Arts Center of Cannon County’s White Oak Craft Fair, held in September.