Shhh. Be patient and wait. The dream will reveal itself. It may deliver a glimpse of the future. It may deliver a piece of art. It may deliver life’s purpose. Artist and educator Nancy Basket has mined her dreams to discover all three and embody her destiny. “I’ve always been led by dreams, and visions, and inklings, and I follow them,” the Walhalla resident confides. “It’s intuitive. It doesn’t make sense to anyone else. I don’t care what other people say. I know what I need to do. I see it in my dreams.”
The master storyteller opens her 100-year-old home on Main Street six days a week, to share her passion for one of the South’s oldest, rural art forms, as well as her creations made from the region’s century-old conqueror: kudzu.
As the oldest of four, growing up in Yakima, Washington, Nancy recognized she was different. “I never fit in,” the 69-year-old reveals. “My mom called me an old soul when I was born. I’ve always known things. I was always a teacher.” Alone with her dreams and visions, the budding artist gravitated to the outdoors, navigating her way through the valley filled with apple orchards and wineries. She’d scan the horizon for its bounty, harvesting the land for art supplies to use crafting and painting. A favorite pastime was picking weeds to make still arrangements.
Her mother’s German sensibilities contrasted with her father’s Cherokee bloodlines. From a very young age, she recalls asking a lot of questions about her “native roots.” Raised Presbyterian, she looked beyond to The Creator and learned more about her father’s ancestors. Her soul yearned to make a connection with who she felt she really was. “I’ve always been very independent,” she explains. “The more I heard about my dad’s Indian heritage, I knew that’s who I’ve been all my life. I’ve got to tap into that spirit.”
A true metamorphosis began in 1981 when a friend taught her how to coil baskets from pine needles. Nancy remembers, “When I started doing the baskets, I thought, ‘I’ve got to go back. I’ve got to go back to the ancient homeland.’” The South was calling.
Against her family’s practicality, Nancy eventually made her way to the Carolinas. “I’ve always been driven. It’s part of my medicine,” she says. “I wanted to learn true history and learn from the Elders. They’ve taught me a lot of different things.” She vividly recalls her first visit to Cherokee, North Carolina. “Oh my gosh! I got shivers,” she admits. “I thought, ‘I’ve been here before, I know this place.’ When I was on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I had to pull over. I was overwhelmed because the view I saw was what I dreamed about as a kid. It was the exact same place.”
She settled in Union, South Carolina, scavenging the Sandhills for Long Leaf Pine needles and learning to make natural Cherokee dyes. Her baskets took on all shapes, sizes, and designs. She even crafted large frames from pine needles to showcase her artwork. All the while, she channeled her third great-grandmother on her father’s side, Margaret Basket. “Artistic skills skipped a few generations in my family,” she shares with a laugh. “I believe in epigenetics. You might not get that with this grandmother, but back aways, there are gifts that are given. It’s not metaphysics now; it’s not ‘woo-woo.’ It’s science. I love when science and art and religions can kind of get caught up and agree.”
The more she learned and created, the more everyone agreed that Nancy’s art was unique and prime for utilizing the large, green blanket canvassing the South.
The Vine’s Story
“I’ll never forget seeing kudzu for the first time,” she reveals. “You couldn’t miss it. I saw it immediately and asked, ‘What’s that green stuff growing everywhere?’” Union was hosting a Kudzu Festival, and organizers asked her to make some kudzu baskets. “Oh, that’s where I learned my first story,” the artist admits with dismay. Her kudzu baskets had fallen apart within four days, so she returned to the place where she’d ripped up the plants.
“I apologized [to the land],” she says. “I said, ‘I’m a Yankee. I’ve come South. I’ve done things too quickly. I’m going to sit here. Tell me how to use you.’ I actually waited for a very long time, and then I heard in my mind, ‘Leave the trees alone. Use kudzu leaves for paper.’” She questioned what she’d heard, as she was a basket maker, not a paper producer. But she obeyed the voice and vision. “Making kudzu paper has literally been feeding my family ever since,” she confesses. “And that was 1989.”
In 1996, Nancy relocated to the Upstate. Her Walhalla home also serves as her Kudzu Kabin Designs art gallery, every inch showcasing pine needle baskets, masks, and frames, as well as kudzu cards, lamps, and free-form sculptures. Uktena, a crystal-studded Cherokee serpent, hangs overhead ready to take on Thunder Bird, a kudzu and driftwood masterpiece. “I dreamed where to get Thunder Bird’s leg in the Chattooga River,” she recalls. “The next morning, there it was on the banks. And I said, ‘Hey Creator, thanks! Where’s the other leg?’ I ended up having to have a friend make it with a chainsaw.”
Every day, she channels new inspiration inside her 100-year-old barn on the back of the property. Originally a home to cows, the structure now houses stained-glass windows, a wood-burning stove, and cozy cane furniture. Drying lines, blenders, and bales of split kudzu vines await a surge of creativity. “I love the basket-making, but the paper items sell so much quicker and faster,” she explains. “I can put days into baskets, but only people who are really wealthy can buy those, and I’m not going to be an elite artist. That’s why I enjoy making the smaller pieces.”
In addition to her home gallery, her pieces are available for purchase in shops from Bishopville to Asheville, Walterboro to Walhalla. Her baskets, with even, tight stitching, and her free-form kudzu pieces have also caught eyes across the nation. The Pittsburgh Zoo commissioned nine, five-foot-wide kudzu chandeliers, and her architectural work hangs from the ceiling inside a Las Vegas restaurant. Even Hollywood has tapped her skills to provide set pieces for Last of the Mohicans and Young Indiana Jones.
In the winter cold of the barn, Nancy mentions her fingers don’t move as quickly as they once did. She rotates between projects large and small to prevent arthritis from taking root. She’s looking to the future. “When my fingers won’t work anymore, I can still talk,” she predicts. The mother of six children already has spent much of her life talking in classrooms, instructing as an artist in education through the South Carolina Arts Commission, as well as through the National Indian Education Association. Private schools, public schools, Clemson and Furman Universities, museum and library groups, even pow wows. She’s dedicated to sharing her basketry skills with others, while telling “Native American stories of respect” to all who will listen, including members of the Catawba Nation. “It’s really important to be with the kids and let them know something from nature,” she shares. “To see a real native person. We can be lighter, darker. You can’t tell a real native person walking down the street.”
She’s committed to passing down traditions she spent decades learning. “I love the pine baskets,” she confides. “They’re full of bright lights like the stars. That’s a Cherokee story.” She launches into a tale of seven boys playing stick ball, who don’t respect their mothers. They wind up floating away from Earth, to create the star cluster many call The Pleiades. “If you don’t put the stories into the practice of your life, you’re not going to get anywhere,” she instructs.
Her youngest daughter, Joleen, likes to make baskets, and Nancy’s left some of her patterns in books. “I know I won’t live forever,” she says deep in thought. “I’ve taught so many people. I will teach as much as I can to the people who will be here to carry it on longer. I pray that I can leave some of the stories with the kids who have grown up to be the teachers. They’ll remember and carry on the stories. People won’t know who I am, but they’ll give credit back to where it’s due—back to the Elders.”And also to a West Coast artist, committed to finding her identity and heritage, cemented in the South.
Kudzu Kabin Designs is open Mon–Sat, 10am–4pm, at 1105 E Main St, Walhalla, but Nancy says it’s best to call first at (864) 718-8864. (She might be out harvesting kudzu.) You can also find some of her pieces at Sunni Ann Rustic Shop in Walhalla and Marquee Asheville in Asheville, NC.
Photography by Paul Mehaffey