Kentucky basket weaver shares her story

Forde Womack

Leona Waddell, 88, has been using her hands to cut and weave tree bark since she was 10 years old.

She learned the traditional basket making art from her mother at their home in Club Run, a small town in Hart County.

“I used to sit in the living room with my mother,” Waddell said. “We would strip the wood and make the threads for the baskets.”

Waddell said weaving was a big part of her childhood; she worked with and learned from her mother to master the craft. Taking part in each step of the creation process, Waddell would cut down trees and peel them for bark, which she used to create her baskets.

Although Waddell took a break from weaving when she married at age 17, she said she picked it up again after the birth of her eldest daughter. At that time, she began making market baskets, which she would sell on roadside stands.

As she raised her children, Waddell alternated between working as a stay-at-home mom or in restaurants and sewing factories to help provide for her family. She also worked as a baker for 14 years in a public school.

After retiring in 1996, Waddell began to share her weaving skills by teaching others how to make baskets.

Waddell’s eldest daughter, Gerri Peters, 65, said she remembered her mom’s upstairs room where she would weave and where her daughters watched her work.

“I used to see her make ribs for the basket, and she would do it so flawlessly,” Waddell’s second daughter, Pam Antchetti, 53, said.

Peters said she once saw her mother cutting tree branches and making them into ribs, which create the framework holding the basket together. Peters said her mother would make the blade dance on the wood as she whittled the rib base.

“I said, ‘that doesn’t look too hard,’ and I went upstairs and into the room, sat down in Mom’s chair, and started to scrape,” Peters said. She remembered seeing her thumbnail “whoosh” through the air, followed by a lot of blood.

“I remember going downstairs and showing [my mom], and she said, ‘well, it ain’t so easy, is it?’” Peters said.

The Kentucky Museum held the opening reception for its new exhibit, “Standing the Test of Time: Kentucky’s White Oak Basket Tradition,” on Friday, Sept. 16, at which Waddell is a featured artist.

Brent Bjorkman, director of the Kentucky Museum, said the basket exhibit shares a story about an important Kentucky tradition known nationally.

Bjorkman met Waddell 17 years ago through his work with the Kentucky Folklife Program, and has had opportunities to document her work and give her recognition.

Waddell’s work was included at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2013 as well as several other galleries and exhibits, according to the biography written by Bjorkman for the National Endowment for the Arts. She was also awarded with the National Basketry Organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and is an upcoming recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Basket weaving to me is everything; it’s my life and it fed my children,” Waddell said. “I love it; I always will.”

Reporter Forde Womack can be reached at 270-745-2655 and [email protected]

Ed. note: A previous version of this story stated that the National Heritage Fellowship was given by the Library of Congress. It is actually given by the National Endowment of the Arts. This error has been corrected. The Herald regrets the error.