In late 1983 and early 1984, I organized a special project with the People’s Republic of China, traveling with Chinese government officials and a professional photographer, Nancy Kuhl, to bring out a collection of baskets produced by master basket makers. The trip culminated in a special exhibition at the University of Colorado in Boulder the following year and a wonderful article I wrote in Arts of Asia (May-June, 1984, “Modern Baskets of China”), published in Hong Kong. This article details the basketmaking techniques and political philosophy of China during this time. The creation of art was not separate from the political philosophy.
This is one of the most difficult projects I have ever undertaken because we went into areas that were not open to foreign travel as of yet, being monitored daily by the government. I carried the collection with me as I travelled by train, car, and plane. There was very little heat where we traveled, and it was cold! It was difficult to experience the hardships of the local rural people who gave us the best they had to offer in the way of food and comfort.
I have a masters degree in fiber design, and basketry was my specialty. This is what fueled the interest in this topic. So, one of the publications written by me and donated to the museum described and diagramed the various woven techniques used in bamboo and grass basketmaking.
After extensive travel within China’s basket regions, we exited through southern China by train. I had no idea how I was going to get everything across the border because I had been warned that my collection would be taken at customs when leaving the train. Meanwhile, we met a group of Getty Oil employee wives in Southern China who helped me. They said I needed a lawyer to get through customs and made way for me to make a private telephone call to Hong Kong while entertaining my escorts. I called a gentleman I met in Hong Kong on my way into China. He happened to be the Barrister for England at the time. I had no idea what that meant until he met me at the border and brought this wonderful collection through customs with his inspection. I have great appreciation for his help to preserve this collection for future generations. It is a slice of history with beautiful photographs that documented the people and their lives, as well as the mass production of art at that time in history.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Department of Anthropology has agreed to accept this collection with all documentary materials, which include portrait photographs and slides. The collection includes 40 baskets and will be known as The Sharon La Pierre/Nancy Kuhl Collection and at some point be open to the public and to other museums for further exhibitions. All legal property rights were conveyed to the Museum on June 23, 2014. I have attached one photograph of all the baskets together as I left the collection on the sorting table with the museum. The museum gave me the permission to use the other photos for this blog announcement. Many of the baskets are of animals, such as a buffalo, chickens, a rooster, and frog to name a few. Each is beautifully crafted by a master basket maker.
I had originally intended to leave these items in my will to the museum, but Nancy Kuhl died more than 20 years ago and left her slides and materials to her son, Michael Kuhl. One day he called me out of the blue. He had been searching for me and had boxes of slides and beautifully framed portraits of Chinese people from this project. That set the stage to donate everything now so I could help with classification of materials and give verbal embellishments. Nancy had been one of my students when I taught at Community College of Denver, Red Rocks Campus. She was a professional photographer who was taking design classes to enhance her business. Her husband, Norm Kuhl, ran divisions of Coors Brewery in Golden, Colorado.
So, it is my pleasure to share these wonderful baskets and documentary materials with future generations by celebrating the museum’s acceptance of this collection. Here’s to you, Nancy! …..Sharon La Pierre