Using a can of milk as a mold, Mary Lou King wove her first basket out of cedar bark in 1984.
Her teacher was Delores Churchill, a renowned weaver from Ketchikan. For 17 years, Churchill has taught classes in basketry and basket design at the University of Southeast Alaska.
"She tours all around Southeast and Europe and down south teaching her classes," said Alice Tersteeg, an art professor at UAS who helps coordinate Churchill's class. "We're happy that she has time to come up here. ... It's a wonderful opportunity."
Churchill's classes are part of the University's Northwest Coast program. The session begins July 9 and ends July 20; three levels - beginning, intermediate and advanced - are offered. Small classes of 12 to 15 students are preferable, Tersteeg said.
"Teaching basketry is pretty intricate and it's pretty much one-on-one," she said. "You really need that individual attention for the class."
King has been taking Churchill's classes since they began in 1984. Today, she collects her own materials, even assisting with a UAS class on harvesting and gathering taught by Janice Criswell.
"I use spruce roots and there are very few places where they're good enough to make baskets," King said. "They have to be in sandy or soft soil, not in rocks. If they're in the rocks, they get really crooked and you want your roots to be straight."
Many UAS students move from the harvesting class to the basketry class, Tersteeg said. Churchill has her beginning students work with cedar bark, which is available for purchase by students who aren't able to gather.
"Cedar bark is the easiest to begin with - it's softer, more like leather," King said. "Spruce roots have more of a mind of their own."
Baskets range in size, and can be made in either the Tlingit or the Haida styles.
"She's got an incredible history of both Tlingit baskets (and) Haida baskets," Tersteeg said. "All the different styles of the Northwest coast."
Churchill, who was traveling this week and could not be reached, learned weaving from her mother, Selina Peratrovich. They taught classes together for years; today Churchill also teaches design styles to add to baskets. A class from July 21 to July 23 will focus specifically on those skills.
King said decoration adds an important touch to various pieces.
"I gather grasses for the decoration on the baskets," King said. "You get it wherever you find it growing. ... You use the seed head part of it, not the blade."
Many of the students in the class return year after year, Tersteeg said.
"You just continue to learn," she said. "It's like taking piano lessons. You need to take classes for years and years to develop more proficiency."
Since she began taking Churchill's class, King has explored many other types of weaving, including pine needle, birch bark and cedar bark baskets, and her milk can mold has been replaced by a candle.
"Milk cans don't have the flat bottoms anymore," King said. "That's what makes for a mold. You need to have a fairly flat bottom if you want your basket to stand up."
The Northwest Coast Basketry class meets from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, July 9 to July 20. Register at the UAS Auke Lake campus, or call 465-6457 with questions.
Other summer classes offered through the Northwest Coast program include Churchill's basket design from July 21 to July 23 and Woolen Weaving from July 23 to Aug. 3.
Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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