Mississippi native, Bessie Johnson has been fascinated by basket weaving since she was a child, as she sat watching her father weave chair seats and baskets. She felt a kinship with the earth and its inhabitants in those sublime moments. Basket weaving was in her blood…and in her soul.
Over the past 40 years Bessie has developed a style that is all her own, born of a rich cultural heritage and a contemporary artistic vision. She uses long leaf pine needles that grow along the southern border of the Gulf states and other natural materials, such as gourds and corn shucks to create her ornate and unique baskets. In addition to practicing her craft, Bessie shares it, giving back to her community, teaching children and elderly adults.
Bessie is a charter member of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi and has won numerous awards at major art shows and festivals, including the Governor’s Award for Arts Excellence in 2010. In 1994, she was chosen to design and create ornaments for the Mississippi Christmas tree that was displayed in a circle of state trees at the White House.
On her website, Bessie says, “Every time I create a basket, I give new life to a craft that is age-old…Weaving baskets with native Mississippi materials takes me back to some of my dearest childhood memories. I consider this to be an artistic link to my African forefathers. It is as much of my family’s legacy as any genetic inheritance.”
What drew you to your chosen craft?
I had a passion for basket weaving for over 40 years. It is a passion that I have had since I was a child. Both parents were active in traditional crafts. My father taught me the basics of basket weaving. It is an inexpensive hobby. I have found it to be a source of income. This is a business that can be operated out of the home. It can be used as a unique brain exercise program. Demonstrations were given to the 4-H girls attending the State Short and camps.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
With many groups, I found that pine needle basket weaving is recreational and a valuable activity in occupational therapy in cases where the muscles in the hand and arm need developing. Other things I enjoy: Networking with other artists, promoting creative ways to approach problems, how to present ideas with pride and confidence, an ability to draw on new resources to empower my life, a deeper understanding of my own culture, heritage and the cultures of others. It is a wonderful art for all ages!
Why is it important for people to make things with their own hands?
People learn to express their creativity. It encourages creativity and fellowship. It can be used as a unique brain exercise program.
In what ways are handmade goods better than those that are mass produced?
It can be personalized. They are crafted with love. They are fun to make! They may save money.