As a little girl, Molly Neptune Parker played with wood scraps that her mother had discarded. She fashioned those scraps of ash into little baskets, impressing her mother and other traditional basketmakers.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you use some good material and see what you can do?’ ” Parker recalls.

Parker, a Passamaquoddy basketmaker from Princeton in far eastern Maine, is now a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage fellow. The honor recognizes folk and traditional artists for their skills and their efforts to share them with future generations.

The fellowship, which includes a $25,000 prize, is the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. This year’s winners were announced last week.

“It’s a great honor, and it means a lot to me,” Parker said by phone Monday. “I don’t like to compete. I don’t put my baskets anywhere to compete. I just enjoy making baskets. But this particular award is very prestigious. It means that all the work I have done in the past with my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is being recognized.”

Parker will receive the award in Washington, D.C., in October. She is one of nine Americans to win fellowships this year, and the sixth winner from Maine since the award’s inception in 1983. Of the six, three have been Indian basketmakers.

Other 2012 fellowship winners include Flaco Jiminez, a Tejano accordion player from Texas, and Harold Burnham, a shipwright from Essex, Mass.

Kathleen Mundell, a traditional-arts specialist for the Maine Arts Commission, said Parker exemplifies the spirit of the fellowship.

“She is a fantastic basketmaker, and has made it her life’s work to make sure that young people and people in her family learn the tradition,” Mundell said. “She is a big cultural advocate. She has that unique combination of being an artist and a community activist.”

Parker, 73, was born in Indian Township, into a family of basketmakers. Her mother, grandmother and aunts all made baskets. She picked up the skills from watching them work, and married into another family of basketmakers.

“I started just by fooling around,” she said. “You know how kids are. They pick up a piece of ash or whatever and start doing what they see others doing.”

Parker is known for her fancy baskets, which are distinguished for their fine weaving techniques. Her signature basket is an acorn shape. But she can make just about anything.

“I like the small ones, but I make them small and make backpacks, laundry baskets. I can make any kind of basket,” she said.

Parker makes her baskets with ash and sweetgrass. Her family used fine ash for decorative baskets, and sturdier ash for working baskets.

Her baskets feature an ash flower on the top, a design used by her mother and grandmother, said Keith Ludden, a special projects associate for the Maine Arts Commission. Ludden nominated Parker for the award several years ago.

“She is just an amazing woman,” Ludden said. “She has taken other basketmakers under her wing and started her own studio up there. She makes incredible baskets that are just things of beauty. She’s giving back to the community, with her time and energy.”

Parker has served as president of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and as master teacher in the Maine Arts Commission’s traditional arts apprenticeship program. She has demonstrated her artistry at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and won many honors at the state and regional levels.

Mundell works with Parker in a program called Living Art-Living Well, sponsored by the University of New England and Mundell’s nonprofit agency, Cultural Resources Inc. Through the program, Parker talks to health practitioners about the value of staying active as an older person and the role of creative expression in a healthy life.

Parker is most pleased that she can pass along the Indian basketmaking tradition to younger people. In doing so, she helps to ensure that the art form will survive.

“I encourage them to get their education, but I also encourage them to do their art,” she said. “It makes me feel good to know there will be 10 or 15 more following in my footsteps.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]

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