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Basket maker on the lookout for decorative final touches

Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2004

An evening walk on the beaches of Cook Inlet is typically a chance for residents to get some exercise, enjoy the scenery, view avian and aquatic wildlife or indulge in some quiet contemplation.

For Sharon Blades of Clam Gulch, her strolls on the beach are all that and more a chance to gather materials for her artwork.

What to most people is typical beach flotsam and jetsam, to Blades is material to be used in her baskets. Bits of seaweed, stranded starfish, shells, feathers, driftwood and glass floats all are woven into Blades' creations.

"I live in Clam Gulch, so I can just walk on the beach every night and can create something when I get home with what I found," she said.

Woven sea grass baskets are Blades' staple product, but she also does wreaths adorned with all manner of aquatic acquisitions and decorated gourd bowls and birdhouses.

Blades used to gather her own sea grass from lagoons but now finds it more efficient to order it ready to use. The gourds she also gets via a distributor, though she's experimenting with growing her own. So far they've only gotten big enough to make into ornaments and not the larger bowls and birdhouses she prefers to sell.

Most of her other materials are found, either by her or others who want to contribute to her cause.

 

Blades often uses feathers, beads, strips of leather and driftwood to embellish small sea grass baskets, shown below.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

"People are saving me stuff all over," she said. "People are always sending me things."

Blades said she likes working with caribou antlers and she came up with a bartering method for procuring them. While working as a cook in hunting lodges, she would trade the hunters baskets for antlers. The hunters usually men wanting to bring a souvenir home to their wives got a handmade basket to take with them, while Blades got a material that works well as basket handles.

She also has several suppliers of feathers, including a few hunters who sent her some wild turkey feathers from Minnesota.

"I think everybody likes to recycle if they can," Blades said. "That's what this amounts to. They can't make a basket, but if they brought a feather they feel like they're part of it."

Blades first took up basketry and beach walking, for that matter when she lived in Tillamook, Ore., near the Oregon coast. A friend taught her the twining technique she uses to weave her baskets about 25 years ago and she started making vessels that could hold wine bottles.

Blades compares learning basket weaving with learning crochet many easily can learn it, but few have the patience to keep doing it.

"It's one of those things, though, you either like it or you don't," Blades said. "I've taught hundreds of people. Out of all those people maybe one or two stuck with it. It's one of those things (where) you just have to have patience."

Patience is not a skill Blades lacks, nor is dexterity both of which came in handy in Blades' former profession as a seamstress.

 

Blades has started making bird houses for variety.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

"I've always done custom sewing and alterations so that's probably where I got the 'make things out of things' (skill)," she said.

Basketry started out as a hobby, something Blades could do while watching TV or during slow times at her Sew and Sew Alterations business in Soldotna. She started displaying her baskets at the store and customers became increasingly interested in them.

About five years ago, Blades was doing well enough selling baskets that she decided to make sewing her hobby and closed the store to do basketry full time.

"I don't want to put in any more zippers, at least not for a while,'" she said. "... I had to make up my mind, either it was going to be a full-time job or an artist. You have to pick ... and I picked the most fun."

Making a living as an artist can require every bit as much effort as a more traditional job, however. Blades spends about eight hours a day working in her studio in Clam Gulch and sometimes as many as 16 hours a day to get pieces done for the busy summer tourism season. Though the work is demanding, Blades enjoys the creativity and flexibility of being a full-time artist.

"It's just so much nicer," she said. "I just get to stay in my studio and create. It's not a 9-to-5 job. If I don't feel like doing it today, I don't, and do it twice as much tomorrow."

Blades does most of her business in Southeast Alaska, where her wares are especially appealing to cruise ship passengers looking for items that don't take up much room in suitcases. She also sells pieces through a retailer in Denali park, at Princess Alaska Lodges, Big Game Alaska and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

On the Kenai Peninsula, her artwork can be found at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and the Kenai Mail Station, which is owned by her daughters, Janet and Jaci. She plans to open the Cove Gallery with thee other artists at Kenai Landing the site that once was Ward's Cove cannery at the mouth of the Kenai River in early June.



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