Interview with basketmaker Lisa Fullarton

“I really like making bright, colourful pieces, and I like making practical art. I like what I’m making to have a purpose. Either it’s practical art or it’s just a big ‘in your face’ sculptural piece. I guess I don’t really have a happy medium in between.” – Lisa Fullarton


Lisa Fullarton was interviewed by Mark Kilfoil on CHSR (97.9FM)’s program, ‘The Lunchbox’ on Thursday 23rd June.

Mark: Lisa; you are among the first of this summer’s crop of artists in residence in the Barracks this year. How does it feel to be down there?

Lisa: Great. I really love the downtown so this is a really good place to be.

Mark: So what is it you’re doing this summer, there?

Lisa: What I’m doing here is making baskets. I’m a basket-maker and I am creating a basket that’s a fusion of regional cultures and my own findings through my studies.

Mark: So how long have you been practicing basketry?

Lisa: Since January of 2013, so it hasn’t been that long; about 3.5 years.

Mark: Well I’d say that’s quite a long time to get into it. What attracted you to this art?

Lisa: I had a career change in my late 40s and I decided to go to the college of Craft and Design, and went into Aboriginal Arts. That was what really called to me because I liked all the offerings that they had and basketry was the thing I really wanted to do. We had to pick a major halfway through our first year of studies and basketry was the thing that really, really grabbed my attention and that’s what I decided to major in.

Mark: So what about it grabbed your attention? Was it the physical nature of it, or some memory from being younger?

Lisa: I really had no contact with baskets or basketry when I was younger. I really didn’t know much about it – it was just working with the natural material, and just the hands-on aspect, and just being able to be tied to natural products and nature and going out and learning how to harvest our own materials – just everything about it really appealed to me. And the design aspect, for sure.

Mark: So you do the whole process all the way from getting your raw materials, too?

Lisa: I know how to do it – that’s not saying that I do do it. I can go out and get spruce root and process it in order to make a finished basket. I know how to go out and harvest birch bark. As far as harvesting black ash splint – I have watched people do it, but that in itself is a very specialized art form and I would much rather spend my time actually making the basket than processing the ash. That’s something which is worth every penny for somebody else to sell me a roll of ash splint that’s been processed if I can find someone that’s willing to part with it.

Mark: I can imagine that having gone through that process and watched them, it gives you a better appreciation of the materials.

Lisa: Absolutely.

Mark: How common is it for people to do that sort of raw material gathering?

Lisa: Personally I found it difficult to find people that, with the black ash tree, people who still have the skill set – who still know how to do it, now what to look for, and who process it properly. To me, that’s been a challenge to find someone that will sell splint. As far as harvesting spruce root and birch bark I’ve found that the people who have that knowledge are First Nations people.

Mark: Tell me about these baskets. We see baskets all the time, of course, and there are some industrial produced ones, but I’m thinking these are probably something very special.

Lisa: Other than First Nations people I haven’t come across that many people who make handmade baskets in this area. In the United States it’s a lot more common and when I purchase reed (like rattan, like bamboo) that you can purchase commercially prepared in different shapes and sizes and you can make baskets from that material as well. It just depends on what people are looking for. I really like making bright, colourful pieces, and I like making practical art. I like what I’m making to have a purpose. Either it’s practical art or it’s just a big ‘in your face’ sculptural piece. I guess I don’t really have a happy medium in between.

Mark: What has been the biggest piece you worked on?

Lisa: For part of my graduate show last year, I made a basket that was 3 feet across and about 9 inches deep. I was really excited to have that finished and really thrilled to be standing in the corner of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, watching people walk into the gallery and stop in their tracks and stare at it. For me that was completely rewarding.

Mark: That’s almost a basket you can climb into.

Lisa: Pretty much – it looks like a boat.

Mark: So how long did that take to make?

Lisa: That took over two weeks – that was a lot of work.

Mark: I’m amazed that it was only two weeks – that’s a real dedication to craft.

Lisa: Well, that’s part of what they train us to do at the Crafts College.

Mark: You’ve also mentioned colourful pieces – what’s the most colourful piece you’ve worked on?

Lisa: That basket was one of the most colourful pieces because I used all of the colours of the rainbow, which are also all the colours of the shockers in the body – that’s another thing that I’m very much in tune with, is Reiki, and energy centres and energy work like that. So that has all the colours of the rainbow in it and it’s a very bright piece – but I like using bright dual tones as accents in my baskets so that’s one of the distinctions about the work that I do.

Mark: Do you stain or paint or prepare your materials beforehand? Or is it natural colours?

Lisa: Usually I use rit dye – that’s something you would’ve used in junior high to tie-dye
t-shirts. It’s more specialized knowledge to use natural material to dye your weaving product with but that’s a specialized knowledge set. I respect people who know how to and who take the time to do it, but for me I’m still just trying to learn new weaving forms and make the product.

Mark: So how much planning goes into making one of these? Is it a matter of, there are a few different patterns to master? Or is it a matter of almost inventing new patterns each time?

Lisa: It’s like any new hobby that anybody walks into, or any new craft somebody walks into. I’ve been accumulating books like crazy, usually written or patterns accumulated by master weavers, looking at all the different techniques and styles and baskets and patterns – there’s thousands of them. So it’s a matter of trying different types and learning about them and trying to master that pattern and then as you reproduce it several times it starts to become more and more your own. Then you try and find your own way to recreate that and it becomes your product, but there are hundreds and hundreds of different types of forms out there and I really enjoy the challenge of trying each kind. Preparing the materials and figuring how much you need, and what colour schemes you want to put together – that in itself is a lot of time and work, and then sitting down and actually putting it together once you’ve figured out how you’re going to do that is the other phase of it.

Mark: Now do you need specialized tools, or are you able to do this right with your hands?

Lisa: Most of the weaving is done with your hands – it’s just learning different techniques of how to overcome different challenges or how to create different effects and the placements that you’re using. There are certain little tools – as you’re working you come across new and different types of challenges and you wish there was a better way to do this and by doing some research online you find a nifty little tool that someone else has created. For me, the latest one is the lash buddy. I had no idea such a thing existed and then once I found it it’s like a shoehorn, except it’s miniature. I can’t tell you how many hours I saved myself with this tool that’s fairly difficult and it makes it so much quicker and easier.

Mark: It must be fun to discover something like that, though. Does it feel like you’re connecting with a tradition in that way?

Lisa: Absolutely. The first thing I wanna do is make a video of it and put it on YouTube. Nobody’s going to appreciate it except another basket weaver but that’s ok.

Mark: How many people are basket-weaving in this area? Is there an enclave that you can gather from time to time or get together and share secrets?

Lisa: In this area there’s only a few people that I’ve come across who are basket-weavers. I know in Nova Scotia there’s a basket-weaving guild and in a lot of other places there are, but not in New Brunswick, so I’m hoping to find enough people that are interested and get together once a month, or even once every few months and tackle a project or share ideas or something along those lines – that would be really wonderful to do.

Mark: Have a lot of people stopped by this week? ‘Cause you’ve been here all week, right?

Lisa: Yes – I’ve been here since Monday. So there have been quite a few people stop by.

Mark: What are some of the questions people are asking?

Lisa: What are you making, what are you making it from, how do you get the material. I have a sample of different baskets here and bracelets and then they ask the same things: What’s it made of, how do you get it, how long does it take you to make it?

Mark: So basketry and weaving has sort of branched out, if you will, from just basketry to other elements of weaving?

Lisa: Yes. Different types of woven product. I’ve got stars here that are made from dyed ash splint; I’ve got garlic and onion holders that are made from reed; I’ve got a growler carrier that I designed and came up with because of being downtown all the time and seeing people go back and forth carrying growlers to get them filled up – I thought “there’s got to be a better way. I can probably make a basket for that.”

Mark: Very practical, I like it.

Lisa: I’ve got market baskets that have nylon strap handles, so for me that was a lifesaver because I can put my lunch, my wallet, my cellphone and stand my Tim Horton’s coffee in the corner of it and it won’t fall over. It still leaves me two hands free to carry other things.

Mark: That’s excellent. So what are you making this week? I understand that you’re going under the theme of New Ground, is that right?

Lisa: Yes. I am making a spruce root basket and that’s something I learned how to do when I went to Nova Scotia and I took a class from Joleen Gordon, who had written a book about Acadian spruce root baskets. To me, that basket is a meld of maritime cultures because it takes the aspect of the spruce roots which comes from Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people using that as a lashing material for birch bark vessels, or birch bark canoes, and the form of the basket comes from the Acadian people, who would have brought the ribbed basket form and the way it’s constructed from France when they first arrived here in the 1500s. To me that’s really great representation of Maritime culture. I’ve recently discovered that I’m a really good representation of Maritime culture as well because I’ve discovered that I have really deep Acadian and Mi’kmaq roots in Cape Breton. I didn’t find this out until 6 months after I’d graduated from the Aboriginal Arts Program so that’s just one of life’s funny little ironies.

Mark: Has basketry kind of been a way, then, to recapture a connection to history and even to your own history?

Lisa: Well finding out that I actually do have Aboriginal roots blew my mind because it explained why this was the art form that I was drawn to. Someone said something to me a few weeks ago asking, what was in your DNA? What really pulled you to basketry? And that made me giggle, because literally it is in my DNA. But I didn’t know that until 6 months after I graduated from the program which was one of life’s little jokes… on me.

Mark: Well that’s a great thing to have happen, I suppose.

Lisa: Yes, it was – it explained a lot to me about my pull towards the culture and the program and why it resonated so strongly with me.

Mark: So people seeing your work: are they gonna get a chance to get really hands-on and both to experience the work physically but also to appreciate the time and energy that it takes to become skilled at it?

Lisa: I think so. Whenever people start asking me questions about it I probably tell them a lot more than they really want to know, but I’ll usually hold pieces out and invite people if they wanna touch it or work with it. I’m all about showing people what I’ve learned and talking about what I know. I don’t mind anybody picking up a piece of my work and holding it and asking questions – I don’t mind that at all.

Mark: My strongest memory attached to a basket is back in the day doing potato picking by hand which doesn’t really happen anymore but that was the centerpiece – that was your tool, the way you did it.

Lisa: And those baskets were incredibly sturdy and strong. Back in the day when a lot of First Nations people would have been making those – that was the plastic, the Tupperware of the day. That skill set that you need in order to create those baskets – once people started using plastic man-made materials those really weren’t needed anymore and that ability to make those has kind of fallen off. There’s not really that need so there’s not that many people who have the skills to do that now. Unfortunately the other part of that is that there’s a problem called the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle that’s working its way into this area which is going to kill all the black ash trees. That’s another challenge – to find another material to weave with if those trees disappear.

Mark: So you graduated from the College of Craft and Design, in the Aboriginal Visual Arts, particularly in basketry – you’ve now gone on to teach basketry, is that right?

Lisa: Yes. I graduated in June 2015 and I did go back for graduate studies but I left at the end of December. I just needed to start my art practice so in February I went out to the Ville in Marysville, and I have studio space out there now. That’s a whole other story – that could be worth at least a whole other twenty minute interview. So I started my art practice out there so I do teach basket-making classes and that’s my studio space to create pieces for sale and for collections and for competitions for gallery shows so that’s my place out there where I teach classes and I’ll be teaching classes at edVentures this summer as well, downtown.

Mark: I’m hoping that a lot of people are gonna drop by and see you in person, but since there’s only a couple of days left, is there a place online where someone could follow up with you later?

Lisa: I have a website and a Facebook page for BlackButterflyStudio and I’m going to have a link on my Facebook page that people will be able to pick that up. If people want to find my work in person they can just come to the Ville in Marysville – I’m pretty sure there’s a map on my Facebook page.

Mark: One last question: you said it’s been about 3.5 years since you started in basketry – can you estimate how many baskets you’ve made in all that time? Have you been keeping track?

Lisa: Probably about 400 pieces – not just baskets, but stars and bracelets and I’m hoping that I’m gonna get to that 10,000 hour mark soon. They say it takes 10,000 hours at a craft before you’re really good at it so I’m hoping I’ll hit that soon.


Find the audio podcast of Lisa’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Lisa Fullerton (Basketry)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s