Show of a lifetime
Jackie Abrams, “African Jar,” 1998. Stitched cotton paper, acrylic paint, waxed linen thread, varnish; 8.5 in. x 11 in. x 11 in.

Show of a lifetime

Brattleboro artist Jackie Abrams winds down her career and her life, reflecting on a 45-year artistic legacy in what she believes will be her last show

BRATTLEBORO — On Saturday, May 29, a new show - a particularly important one - goes up at Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts.

“Jackie Abrams: 45 Years of Making” brings together basketry from the Brattleboro artist's many series over her lifetime, from the traditional basketry of her early years to works in her “Precarious Shelters” series - more symbols of those shapes that hold our lives, as baskets hold our objects.

Over the past 45 years, Abrams has collaborated with glass artist Josh Bernbaum and fabric artist Deidre Scherer. In all, 20 series of contemporary basketry will be exhibited.

Throughout her very successful career, Abrams kept at least one basket from each series. These pieces, kept for her personal enjoyment in her home, make the show a comprehensive survey. There will be more than 60 pieces in the show - intended to be her last, owing to a late-stage cancer diagnosis.

Jackie Abrams talked to me about her life in art as we sat outside her home and studio in Brattleboro.

She used an oxygen tube, the only visible sign of her disease. Since her devastating diagnosis in December, she has already been through surgery and chemotherapy, but she was feeling pretty good that day, looking forward to the opening of her show, and was able to chat animatedly.

Petria Mitchell, co-owner of Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts with her husband, Jim Giddings, says of Abrams, “I've never known anyone who could think through their fingers as she can - she has learned how to walk creatively on the planet.”

* * *

Abrams' creative walk was not a given.

Her family insisted that she and her two sisters study something in college that was practical, something that could get them a job when they graduated, so Abrams was steered toward teaching.

While she always “loved three-dimensional form,” she had no formal art training growing up, she says. Sometimes, she confesses, she feels that lack. But she was always attracted to making things, and once on her own she took many workshops, trying out different kinds of crafts ... pottery, fabric arts, book arts, printing.

In 1975, she met Ben Higgins, an 81-year-old master of basketry. At age 26, she left teaching and apprenticed to him for six months.

One thing that was especially great about basketry, says Abrams, was “I could just go to the hardware store, get a few tools, and work in my living room.” That advantage turned out to be especially important once she had children.

For the first 13 years, she used the methods of basketry that have been used by cultures around the world for thousands of years, using traditional materials such as grasses, reeds, and barks. Her work used shapes that were utilitarian.

But for most of her career as a maker, Abrams has considered herself part of the “contemporary basketry” movement, perhaps akin to the movement from realism to abstract art in the two-dimensional realm.

Abrams lauds the freedom she has felt.

“Having your baskets be functional is very limiting,” she says. “If you let go of that, if you can just make something for beauty's sake - there's color, texture. If you don't care about utility, it opens up a million doors!”

“Sometimes I make a shape, and I feel it afterward, being so beautiful!” she adds.

In pieces such as “Campanula” from 1993 or “Seattle Red Urn” from 1998, material and form come together to form bright woven gems.

Explaining why she has had so many series, Abrams says, “I love figuring out the technical part. Once I do, I make some baskets and then I move on.”

* * *

Always fresh and inventive, Abrams' work is in museum collections and has a following. To my eyes, her baskets are poems. Their materials, the technique can be compared to words and poetic forms, but the impact is emotional and even spiritual. Sometimes a basket, its form meandering but not random, can seem to have a life of its own.

Baskets in the “Spirit Women” series are made by adapting the ancient technique of coiling, using strips of recycled silk, cotton, linen, and plastic bags. One such piece in the show, “Hidden Memories: the Ravages of Dementia,” is made up of stitched-together rows, bent and swirling coils of black and yellow surrounding a small opening at top.

Other pieces from the series have titles such as “A Woman of Substance,” “The Matriarch,” or “Blue Stone Stories.” Says Abrams, “These vessels reflect women's spirits - our strong inner cores as well as our sometimes frayed edges.”

Abrams points to having been inspired by Lissa Hunter, who she calls one of her mentors.

“In one of her workshops, she asked, 'What is art?'” Abrams says. “She said there's materials and there's technique and you can be good or bad at using those. But for what you make to be art it has to be about something. It must have content.”

This leads to a discussion of “Women Forms,” one of Abrams' longest-lasting series.

“I had been going to Africa to teach and was speaking to a lot of women about the power of women, their stories, their lives,” she says. “I got the thought that our bodies are shaped by our stories.”

These baskets rise up organically, are often asymmetrical (“our bodies are not symmetrical,” she points out) in colors that range from earthy russets or gold to vibrant reds and blues.

I ask the artist what she hoped people would get from her work. She answers with a story:

“I was at a show with work from the Women Forms. I had a short artist statement about our bodies being collectors of our stories. This woman went into my tent to look more closely at the pieces, and when she came out she was sobbing. She got it!”

“I've always remembered that as the best moment in my career!” Abrams says. “She was so moved."

Abrams calls her sixties her best decade.

“Certainly creatively,” she observes in an email. “I had the materials, technical skills, and interest to make my work exciting to me. Hopefully, exciting to others as well. I was getting some wonderful recognition for my work, always satisfying.”

“My life was also easier; I was finished raising kids, I didn't need more money than I had; I was healthy,” she recalls. “I was traveling and doing craft development work in Africa.”

She says she wondered what would come next. It became clear: in her 70s she would delve into “Precarious Shelters.”

This, her most recent series, has a less personal, more outward facing theme but is no less a part of Abrams' worldview, “an exciting new direction” spurred by the need to “bear witness and make a difference,” she says - specifically to raise awareness of housing issues.

* * *

Abrams' interest in art that speaks to social justice issues goes back a ways.

In 2018, she was a prime mover of the much-praised “Raised Voices: Local Artists Resist” exhibit, held in downtown Brattleboro. Earlier, environmental concerns spurred her to focus some of her teaching in Africa on the problem of plastic bags littering the landscape. In Ghana, Abrams taught women to weave baskets with startling effect.

She had been ready to travel and see more of the world and continue to teach basketry, a mainstay in her life for many years. But Covid made that impossible.

Instead, the artist turned to what felt like “a forced residency.”

With traveling impossible, she started working on the houselike forms that have become the “Precarious Shelters” series.

“I have always been interested in buildings that have seen better days,” she said in an email. “My photos of them date back for decades. In about 2017, when I turned about 68, I started thinking seriously about creating 'Precarious Shelters,' expecting to work on them for 10 years.”

During those early days of the pandemic, Abrams said, “I had an enormous pile of failures; usually I don't have the luxury of that many failures, but eventually I made 20 or so that I thought were successful.”

It was enough for an exhibit at MGFA this past January.

Abrams contacted some museums that already had some pieces of hers in their collection or that previously had shows of art that crossed that line. Some museums wrote back, but all is on hold because of her health situation. Going forward, Mitchell and MGFA will handle the exhibiting of Abrams' work.

In the fall of last year, before her diagnosis, she started teaching Zoom classes. “I went kicking and screaming,” she says.

To her amazement, she found that she liked it and that her teaching style “translated well” to the new format for monthly sessions of eight to 10 students.

Her approach emphasizes creativity and freedom. “I want my students to understand technique, so they can adapt it to their own design. My only rule is whatever you make has to hold together!”

* * *

Mitchell says that many of Abrams' students have come forward with testimonials about how much her classes, and Abrams herself, have meant to them.

Her teaching has taken her all over the United States, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Uganda; she has been to Ghana and Australia eight times each.

Most importantly, says Abrams, “I met, was hosted by, and worked with so many wonderful people.”

Perhaps the capstone of Abrams' teaching career has come recently. In February of 2020, she went to Costa Rica, teaching classes in what she observed as a very run-down, unsafe section of San José.

At this nonprofit center, Sifais, many skills, from art to literacy to martial arts, are taught to women struggling with and in poverty. Using recycled materials, Abrams taught them crocheting and coiling.

“I was there every day in February. The day I left they found the first Covid case in the USA,” she says.

But Sifais “is doing what I'd always hoped would happen” after she'd leave such projects, she says. The women who took her class are now teaching other women. Furthermore, says Abrams, “they are coming up with new design ideas and continuing to use recycled material.”

* * *

Many people learned of Abrams' illness only through an emailed announcement from her in late March that she was selling everything in her studio in 56 bundles that included tools, basketry materials, fabric, and the like, each for $100.

Within three hours, everything had sold - plus, some people made donations.

The proceeds from the sale all went to Sifais. “I was able to send them a check for over $5,700!” she said, with great satisfaction.

Owing to the artist's ongoing desire to be of help to those who struggle not just in foreign lands but right here at home, 10 percent of the proceeds from work sold from “Jackie Abrams: 45 Years of Making” will go to Groundworks Collaborative toward the nonprofit's work with people who are struggling with housing and other basic needs.

It is the desire of any artist that their work will survive after them. Abrams' friends and colleagues will continue to pray for a miracle, even beyond the one of her feeling well enough to participate in putting together this final show.

But if it must be a sendoff gift, this show is surely just as much a gift to a public that has loved, been moved by, and supported her work over these many years.

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