Kari Lønning

excerpt from “Weaving Her Own Story” By Abby Luby, Life@Home. Photo by Amy Dolego

About the Artist:  Kari Lønning

Kari Lonning has been a full-time contemporary basketmaker since 1975. She is best known for her double-walled constructions and a complex weaving process she refers to as her “hairy technique.”

Kari designs and weaves all the baskets herself. Her work is in numerous public and private collections including the White House Craft Collection, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC and the US Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. In 2007 and 2008 Kari won awards for her work from the Smithsonian and Craft Boston craft shows. In 1987, Lonning was designated a Master Craftswoman by the Society of Connecticut Craftsmen.

When Kari isn’t working on baskets, she and her Old English Sheepdog, Emma, are often in the garden or greenhouse.

Finding a bird’s nest in her rose trellis excites basket artist Kari Lonning.  Seeing the nest’s natural weave and dense texture inspired Lonning to create her famous “hairy technique” baskets with their multi-colored, crisp tendrils that emit a certain “buzz”.

It’s just one of many unusual basket styles that have made Lonning, who uses the basket as her canvas and colored rattan as her palette, an internationally renowned artist.  Her work has been featured in the White House Collection of American Crafts and as part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian Museum of Art.  For more than 30 years her work has been collected throughout the world.  She authored The Art of Basketry, the bible for basket teachers, experts and aficionados.

Her baskets bridge the aesthetic gap between fine art and craft.  In the home, these stunning sculptural vessels are versatile as either wall or floor art, to be touched and admired.

“My baskets are more than baskets,” Lonning says.  “Although most people don’t use them as baskets, they are constructed so that they can be used as baskets.  They can be handled.  They are not fragile.”

Lonning dyes the rattan with fiber-reactive colorfast dyes because of their longevity and for easy cleaning and care (she advises washing the baskets once a year).

Ridgefield-based, Lonning lives in a 100-plus-year-old house tucked away in an enclave of lofty flowering hedges.  She lives with her cat, Kitt, and an Old English sheepdog, Emma, a floppy canine with a perpetually wiggly rump.  Her kitchen doubles as her studio, where she sits on a stool at her counter, a peninsula replete with assorted strands of rattan sprouting from old yogurt cups and containers filled with colorful blooms plucked from outside and used for inspiration. The room is surrounded on three sides by windows looking out at her garden, effusive with rhododendron, peonies and perennials, the flora and fauna whose colors and shapes inform her work.

“Color is one of the major reasons why I make baskets,” Lonning says.  “The other main influences are nature and architecture.  My baskets are a dichotomous combination of structure and the wild.  When I look at the garden, at architecture – the spacing, the design, I see a format.”

She refers to herself as an avid problem solver who enjoys figuring out the mechanics of a specific design: how many strands of rattan to use, for instance, and how to create a solid surface in the form she wants.  Once done, she infuses her calculations with a strong, instinctive creativity, choosing a palette that usually pairs deep worn hues with dark neutral shades.  When an idea is formulated, she sets to work, the muted sounds of the rattan bending and intertwining like a quiet wind sifting through a stand of bamboo.

The baskets weightiness is alive with tension and release.  The textural weave is a sequence of mini ebbs and flows that lift to catch the light and recede into the shadows like a seamless, moving current.  A newly created “hairy” basket is intricately woven with shades of golden oranges offset by moody mauves and soft olive greens.  Bands of color interweave and overlap, accented by the rattan’s bristly edges.

Punctuating many of Lonning’s baskets are random points of color, a delightful surprise that interrupts the pattern.  “There are rewards for the viewer if they look for them,” Lonning says, turning one of her double-walled vessels around, pointing to a singular, subtle pattern that’s as delicate as a brief sigh.

Lanning invites interaction with her work and her playful­ ness teases traditional expectations of the basket.  Her double-walled baskets  are a basket within a basket; some  house  marbles that  gently clack  around when  handled, adding a percussive feel  that  lets us imagine the  unseen  marbles rolling around in the inner  vessel.

“These double-walled baskets are constructed like a house, where I build an outer structure and an inner structure, tying them together with the linear use of color. When people ask me what they can put inside, I tell them it’s a double-wall construction and there already is something inside.”

Prominently shown in a room in her house is a black and white photograph of a young Bill and Hilary Clinton studying one of Lanning’s hairy baskets.  The picture is from the mid-1990s and speaks to a notability Lanning has come to accept. But  as well- known as she and  her  works  are,  she regularly reaches  out  to the  global community of artists via the Inter­  net.  She periodically connects with artists from all over the world in Twitter sessions that can last up to an hour.  “Social media works for me. It’s a way of networking when I choose to,” she says.

kari-lonningArtist Statement

My work was greatly influenced by a trip to Japan. I found the tea ceremony there epitomized one culture’s respect for taking time to pay attention to detail and for their appreciation of subtlety. As the tea bowl is studied from all sides, my baskets have changing design elements – both inside and out. My intention is to involve the viewer through the discovery of these, as he/she looks at the basket.

The textural pieces were inspired by a trip to England. I visited intimate villages, extensive gardens and informal aviary. My springboard was to reinvent the nest. To do this, I needed to develop a new surface technique. The “nest” effect is achieved by weaving hundreds of short protruding pieces into the structure of the basket. When these pieces cross, they blend together to create subtle painterly effects.

At present my inspiration is architecture – the strength and simplicity of Japanese courtyard gardens and the color and intimacy of English cottage gardens. Many of these pieces begin with an open grid and are double walled. This allows me to design anything from intimate courtyards to wide open playing fields. Furthermore, to keep the pieces from becoming too serious, noises can be heard from inside the walls when the baskets are handled.
I use a weaving technique where five strands of rattan are woven sequentially to create the “fabric” of the walls and a form of tapestry to weave in the specific designs. To imply a sense of weight and solidity, I weave the top edge back in toward the center. To further suggest a sense of weight, both actual and implied, I developed the double walled construction. I enjoy this, because in making vessels, I can draw on my training as a potter.

In keeping with my Norwegian heritage, I work in a subdued palette of rose, peach, lavender, blues and blue greens, and shades of grey and taupe. I use fiber reactive color fast dyes on the reed so that care and cleaning for the baskets is not a problem.

Since I think of my baskets as only one facet of my creative life, the excitement comes from being able to bring more beauty into the world, be that in the form of baskets or gardens or a state of wellbeing.