Theresa Secord considers it a sign of honor and respect that she enters the Portland Museum of Art through the door by the loading dock. In the past, she’s always come in through the front door, a guest, like everybody else. Now, the Penobscot basketmaker is an exhibiting artist. And the loading dock is where artists come into the building to deliver their work, meet with curators and help with the installation.

The Portland Museum of Art Biennial, “You Can’t Get There From Here,” opens Thursday and, for the first time since the museum began its every-other-year survey of contemporary art in Maine in 1998, it includes art made by Maine’s Wabanaki Indians. Baskets by Secord, Jeremy Frey, George Neptune and Sarah Sockbeson are among the works of 32 artists chosen for the exhibition.

Basket, by Sarah Sockbeson

Basket, by Sarah Sockbeson

Most people view Indian baskets in cultural settings – in a museum dedicated to Indian art, for instance. Alison Ferris, an independent curator hired by the museum for this exhibition, wants viewers to consider Indian baskets in the context of contemporary art, as visually stimulating three-dimensional objects, handmade by makers who are informed by tradition but not constrained by it. Not only are they making beautiful work, but Indian basket-makers are among the most successful artists working in Maine today, both commercially and in terms of national exposure, Ferris said.

“They’re making contemporary art just like anyone else,” she said. “Their work has not been shown in the biennial before, and it seemed like a good time to make that happen.”

Kathleen Mundell, special programs director at the Maine Arts Commission and a longtime advocate of Maine Indian basketmakers, called the biennial a breakthrough for Indian artists. “I remember talking to Theresa many years ago, and one of us said to the other, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if one day basketmakers could show at the Portland Museum of Art?’ It’s finally happening, 25 years later,” she said.

Their inclusion signals a shift in perceptions about Indian art, Mundell said. Even though they come from a utilitarian domestic craft tradition, Indian baskets have become a fine-art form, pushed forward by young artists who are making new shapes, using different materials and non-traditional colors and weaves. Maine Indian basket-makers, including those in the biennial, show their work around the country and sell baskets for thousands of dollars each – sometimes for $10,000 or more. “The biennial gives them the recognition that basketmaking is a very important cultural art form and these people are masters at it,” Mundell said.


Secord, who lives in Waterville, has always considered herself an artist, but she’s never been treated as one by the art-world establishment.

“This is the first time that my work is in a major setting that is not a Native American museum, and it’s considered contemporary art and not an old tradition,” Secord said. “I think that’s significant.”

The biennial continues through Jan. 3. The exhibition includes established artists from Maine who have created new work for this show, as well as artists who live elsewhere and sometimes work in Maine or draw inspiration from their experiences in Maine. Generally, the exhibition has been juried, but the museum began curating the biennial two years ago.

Basket, by Theresa Secord

Basket, by Theresa Secord

Jessica May, who was then new to the museum as its curator of contemporary art, took on the 2013 exhibition to familiarize herself with Maine art and artists. Ferris, a former curator at Bowdoin College Museum of Art, was tabbed for this show because of her knowledge of the state and her experience with contemporary art that’s being made in Maine and elsewhere. She is curator of the Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin.

She’s put together an exhibition that includes 32 artists, some with name recognition and others who are just beginning their careers. The painters Lois Dodd and John Walker and sculptor John Bisbee are among the best known. This will be Bisbee’s fourth PMA biennial, the most by any artist.

Many artists are creating installations specifically for the biennial, including a three-part piece by Eastport artist Anne Hepler, consisting of woven wire that is shaped to look something like the sound piece of an antique phonograph. New-media artist Owen Smith of Orono made a video that attempts to digitally capture the moment that creativity strikes and replicate it so viewers can experience that same moment.


But it’s the basketmakers who are grabbing the attention.

Basketmaking is a centuries-old tradition, perfected by Indian women who used ash and other indigenous wood to make baskets for hunting, fishing and gathering. In the mid-1800s, when Maine became popular with wealthy vacationers, basketmakers began selling to tourists in places like Bar Harbor, Poland Springs and other summer destinations.

With the number of basketmakers dwindling and their age rising, Secord helped launched the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance in 1993. Its mission was to save the tradition. There were 55 founding members, with an average age of 63. Today, there are more than 200 members, and the average age is closer to 40, Secord said.

The organization has thrived, and Secord believes she and her colleagues would not be part of the biennial if not for the work of the alliance in promoting Maine basketmaking.

Sockbeson, a 31-year-old Penobscot, learned to make baskets growing up on Indian Island. Her great-grandmother and other family members made baskets, but didn’t pass down their knowledge. After high school, Sockbeson apprenticed with a tribal teacher for a year, and 12 years ago she began making baskets on her own. She draws inspiration from old-style baskets and infuses contemporary elements. Sockbeson introduces color by dying wood strips and occasionally painting landscapes and florals on the basket covers. She also incorporates moose antlers as handles.

“Unripe Blackberry,” by George Neptune

“Unripe Blackberry,” by George Neptune

“As an artist, there is always the desire to push boundaries and innovate, no matter what medium you choose to work with,” she said.


She likes bold colors, because they contrast the old and the new, contemporary and traditional, natural and unnatural. The tradition isn’t stagnant, she said. It’s been evolving for hundreds of years, as markets, styles and tastes change. She wants her work to appeal to a modern audience, while still reflecting Penobscot traditions.

Frey, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, learned to make baskets from his mother. He makes his own wooden forms to shape the baskets in a style that is unique. He’s also introduced new weaves to the tradition.

Frey, who was born in 1978, is at the top of the Indian art world. He shows his work at Indian art markets across the country and often returns home to Maine with top prizes. He’s won Best of Show awards at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix, Arizona, and the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico. In 2010, he won a United States Artists fellowship, worth $50,000.

Neptune, also a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe, is the grandson of National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow winner Molly Neptune Parker. He learned from his grandmother, and his specialty is miniature baskets. He lives in Bar Harbor.

At 57, Secord is the oldest of the basket makers in the biennial. She enjoys associating with younger artists, because it proves the tradition is alive and thriving. She also is influenced by them.

Secord creates baskets using wooden forms that were built in the 1800s. As a result, her baskets are less precise and lack the symmetry of the baskets made by the younger artists. She appreciates their innovations, and says the younger generation is pushing older artists to innovate. “They’ve challenged us to rise to a higher technical level of weaving,” she said.


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