Kathleen McCormick - Where Willow Meets Artist

On a blustery spring afternoon, renowned basket maker Kathleen McCormick stoked the log fire in her studio in Co. Kildare, Ireland and started telling the stories behind her pieces. Surrounded by willow, tools and finished baskets, she told how she goes about the art of basketry.

Kathleen commands a very practical approach to life and her craft. All of her pieces are unique and made by hand from only natural materials. For her, the criteria for what makes a basket are simple: If it holds stones and it stays together after it’s gone down a hill - it’s a basket.

Born and reared in the Hudson River Valley, New York, USA, Kathleen moved to Ireland shortly after she was married in the mid 1960s. The move was a ‘huge change’ but she has now lived in Ireland longer than she was in the USA. Craftsmanship runs in her family and she shared memories of her grandfather in his basement, surrounded by clocks and the cabinets he was making for them.

Determined and modest, Kathleen is passionate about the demands of her craft. She explained that her life could end up revolving around baskets and that she has to weave in time for her family. “Once you start a basket you can’t go off for the weekend because when you come back it will be dry. It very much depends on the elements and time.” 

Kathleen first started basket making in 1999. She describes how she ‘took the bull by the horns’ telling herself that she was going to learn how to make baskets. She made contact with acclaimed basket maker Joe Hogan, based in Co. Galway, Ireland, who became her tutor. She is still in contact with Joe Hogan and visits him regularly to learn new techniques.

Her love of beautiful things made by hand is not just limited to basketry. Kathleen also spins wool, creates beautiful tapestry and incorporates her own textiles into her work, creating extraordinary and original wall hangings. Because her interests and talents are broad, she wants to be able to explore them in addition to basketry. “So it’s not that I don’t do other things, it’s just that my first love is basketry,” she said. 

The process by which Kathleen grows, harvests, dries and stores her own willow is intriguing. The willow stays outside, being battered by the wind and rain, until late April or May, after which it’s moved inside to stay dry. Harvesting and drying your own willow is an art in itself, a delicate balance of nature and knowledge. If it’s used too early, “it will snap because there’s too much sap” or too late “ it’ll be too dry and brittle.”

Nature determines the way in which each harvest of willow is going to turn out and the markings on the bark of each tree. Her baskets are ultimately a result of the seasons and her hands.  “You know it’s ready when it’s ready. There’s no time limit - as a basket maker you’ll know when it’s the right time.”

In addition to making baskets with willow, Kathleen also uses a technique that turns the bark of trees into a leather-like material with which she creates her prizewinning bark baskets. Always conscious of the environment, she uses lengths of timber so "the bark would be used for baskets and the timber can then be cut up for fire. So then no one is lost,” she adds, “we don't just fell trees for the bark, I use the bark and the man who cuts the timber gets the timber back again, or I cut it up and can use it.  It goes on and on and on and on.”

It’s hard to distinguish the maker from the collector. Kathleen collects pieces which she uses both as a source of inspiration and as a way in which to build up her collection, which is scattered throughout her home. “Sometimes you make things that you don’t want to and sometimes they don’t turn out the way that you want them to. It doesn’t matter what you use it for or whether you never use it, it could gather dust like mine do!"

Kathleen makes baskets that will “last a lifetime” and she says, “You have to write in your will who the basket goes to”. More than anything, she wants her customers to enjoy their baskets but she says that not all people “get” her work. In particular, she refers to her bark baskets, which some people don’t necessarily understand. 

The point at which her baskets stop being just functional and change to a piece of art is blurry.  Her exhibition baskets are all art - each basket waiting for a collector who will appreciate it for what it is, a thing of beauty - crafted by the hands of a most talented artist. 

High art aside, Kathleen’s drive to make baskets is simple - she is compelled to weave. "I have to make baskets because that’s what I do,” she said. “I do them because I want to do them and I have to sell them because I couldn’t keep all of them. There would be no room for me!”

Thanks to Kathleen McCormick for sharing her story.

Find out more about Kathleen McCormick here.

Images by Craft Editions.

Brian Waring