While working at a sawmill in Madison County, AR Leon Niehues came across a small book that would change his life.
"What really helped me was a small booklet put out by the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Arkansas," he says. "It was sort of a rough step-by-step on how to make a basket from a tree. It was about five or six pages. It shows a man starting with a tree, with just a few photographs. It gave me the idea."
The Niehues, and his wife Sharon, whipped up 11 handmade baskets using this simple explanation and materials from the woods surrounding their home and took them to the War Eagle Craft Fair in 1981. They sold out. They had the same result when they returned to War Eagle in the fall. Niehues quit his job at the sawmill and started making baskets full time.
His baskets and sculptures, deceptively simple in appearance, are products of days of complicated, time consuming work that starts when Niehues takes a quiet walk in his woods, searching for the appropriate white oak tree.
Leon Niehues, Basket #93, 2000. White oak, natural dyes, wax linen thread, and coral berry runners. Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Georgia.
He doesn't use anything else. The long, willowy strands he calls "fine little weavers" -- the pieces that he will weave in and out of the ribs of the basket -- are derived when he harvests the wood from individual growth rings, painstakingly separating the years of each tree's life, layer by layer.
His work continues to evolve. He's added new elements like the jet black emery cloth, a contrast against the natural hue of the ribs of his pieces, that he uses as skin. Many of his
newer pieces look more like sculptures than
Niehues says he started using the word sculpture about a year ago without having to explain it or put it in a category, which was freeing.
"Because then you can think of yourself as an artist. And the world thinks of you differently, too.”
Make A Basket With Yarn and A Paper Plate
Supplies: yarn, scissors, paper plate
Mark your plate: Trace a circle in the center of your paper plate. This will be the base of your bowl. Next, make an uneven number of marks, evenly spaced, around the edge of the paper plate. Then draw a straight line to connect each mark to the circle that you drew.
Cut Cut along each line, stopping at the circle that you drew. Now, make cuts on either side of each cut to form a V.
Fold Fold each section at the pencil circle line and bend the sections up to form shape of your bowl. If any of the sections overlap, trim to make the V wider so there’s no overlap when the bowl is formed (see video https://happyhooligans.ca/paper-plate-woven-bowls/?jwsource=cl).
Begin weaving Slip a piece of yarn between one of the cuts, leaving a tail, which you can hold down with your thumb while you get started. Weave in and out of the cuts, around and around the bowl. NOTE: Keep the sections of your bowl folded upwards as you weave. If you flatten them down, your weaving will not resemble a bowl. Occasionally stop to assess your work and to push your yarn down if need be to ensure the paper plate isn’t visible through your weaving.
To change colours To change to a new colour, snip your yarn, leaving a tail, and tie on a new piece of yarn, leaving another tail. You can trim these tails and tuck them in when you finish weaving.
Finishing your weaving Stop weaving about 1/8 of an inch away from the top of the bowl. Cut your yarn and leave a tail which you will tuck in shortly.
Fold the edges Fold the remaining top edge of each section down and crease firmly to create the bowl’s rim and to ensure your weaving doesn’t slip off the top of the bowl.