- Associated Press - Saturday, February 11, 2017

TIBBEE, Miss. (AP) - When life gets crazy, Bessie Johnson reaches for a reliable remedy - pine needles.

“You can relax. If I get depressed, it’s because I haven’t been weaving baskets for a period of time,” said Johnson, a 78-year-old resident of Clay County’s Tibbee community. “I have my Sunday school lessons and weaving baskets. If it’s been a while, I can tell when it’s time to start weaving baskets again.”

She learned weaving as a child at 4-H camp, but she also had a family connection. Her father made baskets by stitching together strips of white oak.

“In those times, people were farmers. They had to have cotton baskets,” Johnson said. “He made them, and people at that time picked cotton with them.”

She was one of those people doing the picking. Hour after hour in the fields taught her something very important about herself.

“That was my motivation for going farther, getting off the farm and away from picking cotton,” she said.

She left the farm but carried the baskets with her. Johnson was a home economist for Mississippi State University Extension Service, and she taught kids the craft, just as she was taught.

“I did some of the things with them I did when I was in 4-H,” she said.

Johnson is retired now, but she still reaches for longleaf pine needles. She has a work station set up in her den, so she can weave while watching television, and she also has a studio.

“I used to have pine straw all over the house. I guess my husband got tired of stepping on it,” she said. “The studio was added on. It’s my old carport.”

She used to get her supply from her in-laws in south Mississippi, but her husband decided that was too far to go.

“He brought a tree home and planted it. We’ve had a tree for the past 30 years,” said Johnson, adding that friends from Jackson also contributed to her supply. “I have a collection of needles that will last me the rest of my life.”

She’s been a member of the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Artist Roster since the 1970s, and she’s traveled to public schools to teach her craft. She’s also taught continuing education classes in basket weaving at Mississippi University for Women.

Officials at The W recently invited her to teach a class on matchstick art. That’s another pastime from her childhood days.

“When I was in Bible school and Bible camp, we made little crosses,” she said. “I decided if they could make pretty crosses, we could make something else.”

She applied for a MAC grant to study the craft, and she found out matchsticks have inspired people in difficult situations.

“At one time, they used it in the prison system. It was called prison art,” Johnson said. “When tramps did it, it was called tramp art. Now, I just call it folk art.”

To prepare her matchsticks, she packs a bunch together into a votive and puts the bundle into a pan. After the matches are lit, she puts a cover over the pan to snuff out the fire.

“For some, I run both ends and the center over a candle to make the patterns I want,” she said. “I have to do those one at a time.”

With burned matchsticks, Johnson creates vases that sell for $400 to $500. She also makes smaller items, including waste baskets, tissue box covers and picture frames. She’s gotten the frames down to a step-by-step process that she teaches to school children.

“They all do their little frames and put their pictures in it,” she said.

Glue is an important part of her matchstick process, but her pine needle creations stay together based on the quality of the weave.

The first order of business is to remove the caps from a bundle of harvested longleaf pine needles, and that usually results in three needles that range from 13 to 15 inches long.

They all have to be cleaned before she can use them. She’s not above doing the work herself, but she prefers a mutually beneficial arrangement.

“I usually find a youth group interested in fundraising,” she said. “I pay $10 a pound. They will clean them and put them in a bundle.”

She uses a copper pipe coupling as a gauge, which determines the size of her weaves, as she wraps the needles in threaded raffia. She keeps feeding in new needles until she gets what she wants or something close to it.

“I pretty much know what I want to make,” she said. “I attempt it and most times I’m successful, but sometimes I get something I don’t expect.”

She’s gone well beyond her childhood days to become a pine needle master. Some of her baskets use gourds or sliced black walnuts as decorative features. One of her more intricate pieces incorporates a pine bowl, and bits of pinecone have been woven into the handle.

“I make showstoppers to get people’s attention at festivals,” Johnson said.

She prices her baskets from $125 to $600. She also makes coasters ($10) and pot holders ($25) that can fit into most shoppers’ budgets.

It’s hard for her to tell how long her creations take. The work isn’t automatic - there’s plenty of thought involved - but it’s constant.

“I have a desire to do it and stay busy. I always stay busy. I can’t sit and hold my hands,” Johnson said. “And I can do it and watch TV. Most of the time, there’s nothing on that I want to watch, anyway.”

Her craft can keep her up late at night. Sometimes, she and her husband wake up to a roomful of pine straw or matchsticks. Johnson said she doesn’t mind the occasional mess, especially when compared to the benefits.

“It’s creative. It stimulates the brain. It does help in your old age, exercising the mind,” she said. “It helps with arthritis because it works your hands.”

Technically, basket weaving is work. At least, that’s what it was for Johnson’s father years ago. But it’s become something else for her.

“It’s a passion for me,” she said. “I do this when I get tired of doing what I’m supposed to be doing, so it’s a type of therapy.”


Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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