Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Jeremy Frey

Washington, DC

Porcupine quill basket by Jeremy Frey. Photo by Theresa Secord

Jeremy Frey is a Passamaquoddy basketmaker. Based in Maine, he specializes in ash and sweetgrass baskets, as well as porcupine quillwork. As a young boy, Jeremy enjoyed drawing and woodcarving, eventually learning basketmaking from his mother Gal Frey, a renowned artist in her own right. Jeremy’s baskets appear in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City, among others. He was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from United States Artists, a national grantmaking and advocacy organization. The precision, elegance, and variety of Jeremy’s baskets fuse traditional shapes and patterns with contemporary influences, resulting in breathtaking yet functional pieces.

NEA: How did you get started making baskets?

JEREMY FREY: I started weaving in my early 20s and I did it as a way to get off drugs. I was very addicted. One day I decided I have to change my life. I called my mother and said, “I want to move home and clean up.” When I got there, she was weaving. I was just sitting around the house then. I didn’t want to leave because I felt I have to stay home until I get this under control. So I asked her to show me how to weave. I picked up some wood and it was frustrating. Nothing seemed to work for me, but at the same time, I wanted to see the final product. Even then, I wanted to see a finished piece. Eventually, I needed money. I was carving at the same time so I sold a carving and a basket and I was like, “Wow.” I’ve always wanted to be an artist. Over the years, I’ve painted, drawn, sculpted, [and] carved, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do for my career. But [with basketmaking], I thought I want to learn everything I can about this. I just took it day by day. Then show by show. Competing against what I did before. I always try to improve. I do repeat pieces but there’s always something new.

NEA: What are your sources of inspiration?

FREY: I base all my work on traditional styles. Every basket I make, I want to refine a little more than the last one. I like profile views, silhouettes. Almost all of my designs have a silhouette that is curved or arched. As well as putting beauty into the shape, arches contribute to a basket’s strength. I never compromise integrity with my designs. I won’t make a pretty basket that isn’t structurally sound.

NEA: How do you prepare for making a basket? How much is preparation and how much is inspiration in the moment?

FREY: I have lots of visions of different things I’m going to do in the future, and I do sketch those out. There is some stuff I’ve been thinking about for years. I just haven’t done it yet. But I also do porcupine quill inlay on birch bark, and that has to be completely designed and drawn out beforehand. The size has to be just right. It’s like painting a picture in quills. A lot of times, I start with one weave and then change the weave but I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. I just did a basket this week. I knew the shape. I knew the materials and colors and I knew the start pattern, but I had no idea beyond that. You can use just three techniques and make 600 different kinds of baskets depending on how they’re incorporated. Ideas just occur to me out of nowhere, almost like someone gave me the idea. It wasn’t planned. It’s just there. But sometimes it takes a few years before I can actually do a piece.

NEA: Why basket making?

FREY: Originally I did it to pass the time. More than anything, I really enjoy the final product and I love to have beautiful pieces sitting around. People ask me if I have a collection of my own. I don’t have any of my own baskets, but on any given day I have a number of baskets around. As long as I’m weaving, I’ll always have my own work. One of the things that motivates me is staying on top of what I’m doing. I still have ideas and I still have new directions to go in. If I thought I was being repetitious or wasn’t innovating, I’d move on to something else.

NEA: What is the artist’s role in community?

FREY: We inspire. My own relationship to the native community is [to provide] a sense of personal identity and history. I teach as well, and I teach people the physical history that is the living history. There is a sense of empowerment to creating anything. To me, it always goes back to self-respect. If you are in a community that develops an artist that gets respect, your community gets respect. If I can get our name and our art [out] on a national scale, it uplifts the community.

NEA: What is the community’s responsibility to the artist?

FREY: We’re like a big family. A community’s encouragement is all that an artist really needs. Any type of support for an artist is a community responsibility if they want art to be part of their lives.

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