Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Artist Jamin Uticone creates baskets out of the black and white ash trees he finds in the swamp next to his homestead.

When we were kids, I would call my cousin Jamin Uticone on the telephone and talk his ear off. Or at least I thought I was talking his ear off – in truth he would get bored, put the telephone receiver in a nearby fruit basket and walk away while I chattered on, unknowingly. “Fruit basket” was an inside joke in my family (at my expense) for years, one that still makes me blush when I get “zinged” at family gatherings.

At my wedding in 2009, Jamin took the edge off that embarrassing story by gifting me with a hand-crafted, round-bottomed fruit basket of my own – one that he made himself. Jamin, you see, is a craftsman – a basket maker whose work has been featured at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian, and in publications like Vogue and Bon Appetit.

A family affair

Swamp Road Baskets is tucked away between Ithaca and Watkins Glen, on a lush piece of swampland. A Seneca Falls native, Jamin lives and works there on the family homestead with his wife, Julia and their three children.

He creates each heirloom-quality hardwood basket by hand using traditional methods and tools. “I helped my dad build a timber-frame room onto the back of our house as a kid,” says Jamin. “The whole time we were watching “The Woodwright’s Shop.” That was the start of my interest in hand tools.”

Jamin’s dad, Jim, now works alongside his son, visiting the homestead once a week to help create Trugs. “It’s my dad’s sensitivity and patience that inspired me. He was always very encouraging and nurturing.”

Market-ing 

Nine years ago, Jamin found a market for his high-end wares at the Ithaca Farmers Market. “It’s a great place for a business to start in this area,” he explains. “It’s a premier farmers market, where food vendors can sell something for $5, and right next to them I can sell a basket for several hundred.”

The Ithaca Farmers Market has the clientele for selling high-end art, and the open-air setting allows Jamin to demonstrate his technique, which he says was key to building his business. “At the market, someone can see and touch and listen to the sound of what goes into making these baskets. No matter how busy I am, I will always try to be at the Ithaca market a couple of times a month to demonstrate.”

Putting down roots

The Finger Lakes is not just where Jamin works; the region is integral to the work itself. “The region is ideal in terms of the water. These trees like the water, and start with their roots in that water,” explains Jamin. “You don’t find this kind of inland water everywhere, so the Finger Lakes are special.”

The seasonality of the area is also important to the basket making process. “I couldn’t do this somewhere where conditions didn’t change. I need the wintertime to hibernate, sort through the year’s harvest, weave and do a little dreaming.”

It was Jamin’s sister, Joleene, who bought land surrounded by the swamp. “When I started, I was living in Tompkins County, a little closer to Trumansburg. Joleene and I were living on some land, learning homesteading techniques, and I began working as an apprentice to [basket maker] Jonathan Kline. Later, Joleene bought this land across from the swamp, and Julia and I followed. We didn’t come looking for the [black and white ash] trees, but they were here, and it worked out so well. It’s peaceful; the trees I need are here, and I can work the way I want to work.”

In the summer of 2012, the family started using solar power for the homestead, which includes Jamin’s workshop, as well as the family home. Jamin and Julia raise chickens, grow food and recently started raising bees.

A shadow looms on the horizon for the future of Swamp Road Baskets in the form of a very small but lethal beetle known as the Emerald Ash Borer (or EABs). The non-native EABs threaten to destroy the trees Jamin relies on; they have already destroyed over 50 million ash trees in the U.S. since they were discovered in Michigan in 2002.

“Within three years of infection, a tree is unusable,” says Jamin when asked about the future of his trees against the invasive beetle. “There is no way to stop the borers without mass cutting, which goes against my sensitive nature. The trees are coming down one way or the other. Unfortunately if it isn’t the borer, it’s the chainsaw – it seems inevitable.”

Working locally, thinking globally

Working close to home has not limited Jamin’s reach. Orders for Swamp Road Baskets have been placed from such far flung places as France and Tokyo, and Jamin has twice been invited to teach his techniques to students in Great Britain – first in 2007, and again in May 2013 at the “Basketry & Beyond Festival” in South Devon. And while you can certainly put a price tag on the baskets – Trugs start around $150, backpacks around $800 – in the beginning, bartering with locals was how the business gained a foothold. “The Finger Lakes are really open to bartering. Early on, it’s how we survived – trading for vegetables and other things we needed. I still look for those opportunities.”

Additional exposure for Swamp Road Baskets has come through recognition in exhibits at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. In 2012, Jamin was chosen as one of 40 featured artists for the “40 Under 40: Craft Futures” exhibit, and his baskets will be on display again in the upcoming show “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets.”

The exhibit – which runs October through December 2013 – will include works by Jamin, his mentor Jonathan Kline and Kline’s teacher, the late Newt Washburn. “I am going to demonstrate right in the museum, which is kind of a dream,” says Jamin. “I get to work, and show people what I do, on that nice marble floor. I am excited to make a mess there!” Jamin will also be giving a talk about the Emerald Ash Borer, and what it means for the future of the ash trees in New York State.

Reflections on art and artist

I mentioned to Jamin at the end of our conversation that I am frequently stopped at the farmers market by shoppers admiring my own set of Trugs. “It sounds New Age-y, but people can sense the energy,” he replied. “I feed off the energy of the Finger Lakes, and weaving is like meditation to me. The baskets carry that energy.”

When I asked him to describe his work, Jamin paused, and then said, quietly, “I make a really nice thing. It has a function. My goal is to make a usable basket.”

Whether or not you put fruit in yours is up to you.

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How Do I Order a Basket?

Jamin takes custom orders, or you can choose from his regular selection of baskets, which you can find on his website swamproadbaskets.com. How long your order takes depends on a host of factors including assembly time, Jamin’s current workload and available in-stock selection. Here is an overview of some of his top-selling items and their price ranges.

• English-style Trugs start at around $150, and come in three sizes. These are among Jamin’s most affordable starter baskets.
• Jamin’s top-sellers are his “bellied” backpacks, which start at around $800. They are finished with antiqued brass buckles, and are trimmed with top-quality, vegetable-tanned bridle leather.
• Large, woven “art pieces” – wall hangings and large table baskets – measure around seven to eight feet in length, and prices start at around $1500.

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The Life Cycle of a Basket

Jamin’s process begins in spring, when he harvests trees from the swamp. Using a dolly built by his father, Jim, Jamin transports logs through the swamp, back to the shop; trees cut in spring are soaked in a canoe full of water until fall.

Next, the log’s bark is removed with a draw knife, exposing the most recent layer of growth, and a heavy hammer is used to pound and compress the log, allowing annual rings to separate. Strips are sorted and coiled onto themselves for storage; at this stage, material can be cut to size and scraped smooth.

Before weaving, strips are dipped into hot water on top of the wood stove. Strips vary in age and texture; Jamin finds that cool, wet years produce the thickest growth rings.

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New York State vs. the Emerald Ash Borer

Since it was discovered in Michigan in 2002, the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) has spread to 13 states and Canada. The EAB was discovered in New York State in 2009, in the town of Randolph in Cattaraugus County. This prompted state officials to implement various quarantine measures for that county – and Chautauqua County – as well as the implementation of the following DEC regulations.

• Firewood transported within New York State must remain within 50 miles of its source, and you must have a receipt or label with the source information on it.
• Firewood transported into the state must be labeled as meeting New York’s heat treatment standards to kill pests; this wood may be transported further than 50 miles from its source.
• Firewood not purchased (self-cut) must be accompanied by a Self-Issued Certificate of Origin, available on the NYS DEC website; this wood must remain within a 50-mile radius.


by Christina Uticone