Passamaquoddy basketmaker extraordinaire Jeremy Frey is still giddy from winning Best of Show awards from the U.S.’s two major Indian markets, the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in March and the Santa Fe Indian Market in August. In fact, he jokes that he may retire from competitions—it's good to go out on a high note, and you can't get much higher than this in the Native American art world.
Making these exquisite works of art is an arduous process; only after weeks of preparation can the actual act of shaping the splints into baskets for everyday use or as objects d’art begin. The basketmaker ventures into dense, nearly-impassable Maine woods in search of a black ash tree. The tree is felled and stripped of branches and bark. Next, the trunk is sawed into sections and vigorously pounded to separate the rings. The rings are carefully sliced and shaved into basket-sized splints. This can be quite hazardous, as these tools, known as gauges, have razor-sharp cutting edges; at least one basketmaker has suffered life-changing injures when a gauge slipped, slicing and shredding tendons in her forearm.
Today, Frey lives with fiancée Ganessa Bryant and their two sons in their Indian Township, Maine home. We caught up with Frey, 32, as he was pounding ash rings for another show—part of his three-month-long process of gathering, preparation and weaving.
When did you start making and selling baskets?
I first started weaving ash baskets in spring 2002. As a kid I had made some but that one in 2002 was my first traditional ash basket. I actually sold the first basket I made—traditionally we don’t do that, but I needed the money. I knew where it was, I was actually going to buy it back but then it disappeared.
I never looked back. I’ve done that for a living from then on.
How would you describe your career to date?
I think it’s just awesome that I’ve been received the way I have. It’s one thing around here [in Maine] to do well; but be recognized nationally this way, it’s something I never expected out of my career. I always expected that each year was going to be the plateau where I hit the peak, especially with the market crashing, but people always want art. So I’ve been blessed with people wanting my art.
My main goal has always been to put as much work into the basket as I possibly can without making it look like I tried to. Cut everything as small as I can, add as much as I can without making it look like I was trying to just put stuff on it for the sake of putting stuff on it. That’s been my driving force; how can I make this a more worked piece of art this time? I’m always looking at what I’ve done in the past and trying to top it.
How does the business side of art fit into your life?
The business side is scary. No matter what you’re creating, you can’t keep creating it if you don’t sell it. However, selling what you create is difficult. As an artist, I have trouble pricing the work when there are so many other variables and they all have different [construction] times, sizes and techniques. The more popular I become, the more difficult that process becomes. But I don’t want to turn away those people who helped me get me where I am. How can you be there for everyone but also progress as an artist? It’s the dilemma I’m having with this new success. I know where I want to go artistically, but I’m now determining what choices I should make.
I also have to make basic life decisions. I’m raising a family and trying to move forward there. Ganessa keeps me grounded; she’s my inspiration for my art, my muse.
Where do you see yourself as an artist now? Where do you go from here?
If you’re unique enough you make your mark on the world. Winning these awards makes it more likely that my work will end up in museums; hopefully, a lot of my body of work will eventually end up at the same place. I can see it in my head but I’ll never see it as a group [in chronological order]. A lot of my baskets are dated; I started dating them a while back.
I want to keep it fresh. I don’t want burn out to fade away; I want to keep the knowledge. What it all comes down to is hopefully I’ll die an artist – I’d like to be remembered as an artist. It doesn’t have to be baskets, whatever it is, I want to be unique! I want to be remembered as “Jeremy Frey, doing this thing that he does.” Not something that 15,000 other people do.