Self-taught artist Jennifer Zurick uses the flexible inner bark of black willow trees to create her elegant woven vessels.
The artist: Zurick was born in Lexington and grew up in the rural Bluegrass area of Kentucky. Based in Berea, she has been professionally producing willow bark baskets since 1980.
The goods: Finely woven, textile-like vessels ($300 to $9,000) ranging in size from three inches to 30 inches in height.
Many baskets have handles, but are mostly collector’s pieces used for display rather than function.
Most popular: Baskets priced under $1,000.
Materials: Wild black willow bark, which is strong, flexible and expresses a softer, more textile-like quality the finer it is cut. Recently started incorporating honeysuckle vine and encaustic, a beeswax and tree resin mixture she coats on large pieces to stiffen them and help hold their form.
The process: With her brother’s help, Zurick spends one day harvesting the bark stripping the bark from the tree, removing the outer bark and replanting small branches from the harvested tree into the soil. From the one-day harvest, Zurick has a year’s supply of bark.
Next: She coils the inner bark and sun dries it for several days before storing. The bark cures for a year to allow full shrinkage before she uses it.
Then: When ready to use, she rehydrates bark in water, which softens it and allows her to cut it into weaving elements.
Time: Baskets take anywhere from three days to three months to complete, from cutting the bark to finishing, depending on the intricacy of the weave and size of the piece.
Signature style: A mix of technique and texture rather than a focus on color. “I hesitate to add anything that would distract from the willow bark’s lovely natural color,” said Zurick.
Inspiration: Fine basketry and textiles from many cultures, including Native American and contemporary Japanese basketry.
Big break: A commission from Loewe, a Spanish luxury fashion house, to produce a work of her design using its leather for an international exhibition in Milan.
Unusual request: From the Loewe exposure, she was commissioned by Irthi Contemporary Crafts in the UAE to design woven leather handbags and travel to the Middle East to teach a group of Bidwa women artisans to reproduce them for the London Design Fair last September.
Awards: Twice received the Smithsonian Craft Show Bronze Award. And the Best of Show Award at the American Craft Exposition three years in a row. Also was awarded a $50,000 United States Artist Fellowship in 2010.
Claim to fame: Zurick’s work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery and several baskets are currently on exhibit at Side Gallery in Barcelona, Spain.