Community members witnessed the opening of a new exhibit at Native Presence Art Gallery in Wisconsin Dells called “The Art of Ho-Chunk Basket Making.”
“This is the third exhibit that we’ve had here at the gallery,” said gallery director Melanie Sainz. “And it’s just a blessing.”
The exhibit opened on July 15, and has showcased the work of several renowned Ho-Chunk basket makers. About a hundred pieces made by them and other skilled artists have been included in the display.
“We’re looking at the crème de la crème,” Sainz said, “ideal examples of shape and functionality.”
The baskets were curated by two collectors who wished to share their interest with the public. One of them was Mike Schmudlach, who serves on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Board of Curators. Over four decades, he has amassed an extensive collection of more than a thousand Ho-Chunk baskets.
“I’ve been collecting for many years,” Schmudlach said. “And I’m just trying to bring a lot of it back home.”
Schmudlach stated that, after having collected for so long, he can identify artists by their work. Once, he was even able to name the basket maker who wove a piece that he saw at an antique store in New Mexico.
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“You can spot a lot of people’s work,” Schmudlach said. “There’s some real tell-tale signs of who made what basket.”
The other curator of the exhibit was Ho-Chunk tribal member Tom Jones, who works as an artist and assistant professor of photography at UW-Madison. For the past five years, Jones has been collecting and photographing the baskets for a book that he plans to write this summer.
“It’s been a learning process because I don’t have anybody directly in my family that’s a basket maker,” Jones said.
Having already photographed thousands of baskets for the project, Jones said that he can now identify an artist by his or her work as well. He highlighted the indicators that help him and his fellow curator in doing so.
“You can tell who made it from the dye and what the artist used,” Jones said. “They would kind of stick to certain colors.”
As a tribal member himself, Jones expressed excitement about the prospect of others learning some Ho-Chunk history. He said that the exhibit would help spread awareness about an important part of his people’s past.
“It shows a lot of people our history and what helped our tribe survive once it came to Wisconsin,” Jones said. “So I’m excited.”
He and Schmudlach brought their collection to Native Presence in hopes that it would contribute to the efforts of Little Eagle Arts Foundation (LEAF), a nonprofit found by the gallery’s director. She started the group in 2013.
“Little Eagle Arts Foundation is an incorporated 501(c)(3) organization,” Sainz said. “And one of our missions is cultural preservation through the arts.”
She said the exhibit helps preserve her tribe’s tradition by teaching prospective basket makers more about their trade. They have been encouraged to study the pieces so that they can learn as much as possible.
“We’re calling the collection a teaching compendium,” Sainz said. “Potential basket weavers who want to improve their skills can come and look at our baskets, handle them, turn them upside down. That’s how you learn, by re-engineering pieces and looking at the mechanics, looking at the math and the overall skill of the material’s craftsmanship. That’s what we want, for people to come and really learn from the art that we have on hand.”
Sainz said the exhibit will remain on display until August 19.