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Willow, clay and fire

Jennifer Geens
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Mar 11/05) - For years Cathie Harper and Astrid Kruse have worked together, at least in the sense of sharing work space.

"I would work on baskets on her deck while she was firing her raku," said Harper.

Kruse had taken a few of Cathie's basketry classes and Harper would help with Astrid's firings, but each pursued their own art form.

Then it occurred to them that they could really work together - combining ceramics and basketry into a hybrid art form.

They applied to the NWT Arts Council for funding for the project and were approved for a contribution in 2003.

"I heard later that the council was really intrigued by the idea," said Harper.

As far as she knows, it's the first time ceramics and basketry have been combined in the North. Their collaborative effort has become an exhibit titled "From the earth, from the fire" on display at Birchwood Gallery through March 17.

Over two summers, the pair worked together on the pieces. On some projects, Kruse made the clay base and Harper did the basketry. Sometimes they switched roles. Other projects were total collaborations, with input from both artists from beginning to end.

"All of the pieces in the show have both our hands on them," said Harper.

Some are small ceramic bases with tall flourishes of basketry. Some are fully formed works of thrown pottery, with a woven handle.

Often the shape or colour of the pottery is reflected in the basketry and vice versa. If the ceramic base is asymmetrical, the basketry complements it. The subtle colours of the ceramic glaze are often brightly reflected in the strands of woven fibre.

Harper even created a ceramic piece by weaving strips of clay.

On the Tuesday night before the opening they gathered all 40 pieces to select what to show and ended up astonishing themselves with the body of work they had created.

"It worked out amazing," said Kruse.

In terms of the best method of affixing basketry to pottery, the two had to learn through trial and error. They also learned where their strengths lie.

Harper said Kruse is an expert with glazes, where she can construct a mean basket rim. But experimenting with each other's medium brought its own rewards.

"I know my boundaries with clay, but someone who hasn't worked with clay before doesn't have boundaries," said Kruse. "They try new things and push the material in a different direction."

For now they will return to working solo in their chosen media, but they haven't ruled out collaborating again in the future, with each other or with other artists.

They agree the artistic partnership was an enriching experience.

"I hope it sparks interest for other artists to collaborate," said Kruse.

"As an artist you benefit a lot from doing something like that."