By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Aaron Griggs’ first attempt at making a white oak basket didn’t go well. “It was so terrible, you couldn’t keep a cat in it,” the 65-year-old said. “I had to start somewhere, I guess. I started to burn it and said, ‘No, I’m going to keep it.’”
It’s a sorry specimen, but there’s something beautiful about it, too, especially if you take into account the work he does now. The difference between that old work and his new pieces is akin to the chasm between chaos and order.
“It’s been trial and error, laying them out, working on them,” he said. “Every time I make one, I keep learning about it. I can go back and look at them and learn from my mistakes.”
Griggs signs and dates all of his baskets, and that first irregular creation was made in 2010. So it’s been two years of rapid improvement for Griggs, who wanted to take up an old-time craft in his retirement years.
“My granddaddy used to bottom chairs,” he said. “That’s what I was picking up: An old craft I should have learned when I was a kid, you know. My grandfather and others did it. I wanted to make that connection.”
A few years ago, he and his wife, Patsy, took a vacation to Mountain View, Ark., where they met a man in his 90s who made white oak baskets. They talked for about two hours about the ins and outs of the craft.
Griggs returned home, went to his workshop and got to work on that first basket, then he kept going.
“It’s very important to get the best wood at the front end,” he said. “If you don’t have good enough wood, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Landowners in Chickasaw County let him hunt for the right trees. During these recent dry times, the best pickings have been along ditches.
“You have to do a lot of walking, looking and selecting. You can’t use just any white oak,” he said. “What you’re looking for is clean bark, no knots or blemishes. If it’s on the outside, it’ll be on the inside. You want the bark to run straight up and down. If your bark has twists, it’s no good.”
He requires 4- to 6-inch limbs. He gets the bark off with a shaving horse patterned after one he saw at the man’s place in Mountain View.
“White oak basket making from the stump to finished product is done by hand,” he said. “I don’t use any other tools than hand tools.”
A root burl serves as a mallet to get his knife started, then Griggs keeps cutting the wood in half vertically until he gets 16 strips.
“I don’t get splinters. I’ve got Band-Aids for the cuts I get. I’ve got to have Band-Aids,” he said. “You’ve got to pay attention when you’re using the knife.”
The heartwood he saves for handles and rims, and the sapwood becomes ribs, which go up and down, and the weavers, which go side to side.
“Weavers are thinner than ribs because you want the weavers to do this number,” he said, then moved his hand in a wavy motion.
From shaving horse to finished product, it takes about four hours to produce a quart-sized doorknob basket. It takes longer for Shaker apple baskets, berry baskets and market baskets. He gets some patterns off the Internet, and others are inspired by baskets he’s seen. Sometimes, he boils hickory nuts to create a dye to add variety to his work.
His berry baskets probably won’t ever hold berries and his apple baskets probably won’t ever hold apples, but that has nothing to do with his ability as a craftsman.
“They don’t use them like they did. They put flowers in them. That’s what they do with them now,” he said. “The doorknob baskets, they put potpourri in them.”
His work starts at around $20 for the doorknob variety and goes up from there. He’s sold at festivals, and recently shipped four of his finished products to a customer in St. Augustine, Fla.
He’s a member of the Craftsmen Guild of Mississippi, Inc., and he’s demonstrated his technique at the Mississippi Craft Center in Ridgeland.
Mostly, basket making is a lonely pursuit, which is the way he likes it. Griggs’ shop is equipped with a television, small refrigerator, coffee maker, microwave and a hot plate for boiling peanuts.
“I’ve got all the comforts of home out here, except for heat,” he said, while “The Big Valley” played on his TV. “This place is just as hot in the summer as it is cold in the winter.”
On a recent day, a cold rain pelted the shop’s tin roof, and his dog, Butch, curled up in a chair on the building’s front porch. Griggs wore a camouflaged Moon Pie hat along with jeans and a black shirt covered in wood shavings from his absorbing work.
“You have to keep your mind on it and watch. If you don’t, you’ll get cut or you’ll end up with your weavers out of sequence,” he said. “I kind of relax out here doing this. I’m at my own pace. I’m kind of creating from the natural environment out here.”