Jeremy Frey is a Passamaquoddy artist who works in woven sculpture, innovating original art in balance with an inheritance of and respect for traditional practices. Drawing from Wabanaki basket-making traditions that the artist originally learned from his mother, Frey weaves formally curved hollow sculptures using wood from Maine’s ash trees. Wood from black ash (locally known as brown ash) provides a uniquely supple material for basket weaving and has been used for countless generations by the Wabanaki, but this tree is threatened now by the emerald ash borer which has infested significant areas in both Southern and Northern Maine. Frey harvests ash trees for his basket weaving and speaks of the invasive emerald ash borer as a sign and manifestation of the imbalance of our present-day way of life. The ash borer is believed to have come to the United States on the wooden pallets that are the workhorse of consumer goods transportation. The massive importation of consumable goods driven by our contemporary culture’s voracity brought the emerald ash borer first to Michigan and in the past decades it has spread. In Maine it now threatens a tradition of Wabanaki basket weaving that reaches back millennia. Frey mentions that the Wabanaki origin story centers on the ash tree, as Gluskabe (the people’s creator and protector) shoots an arrow into an ash tree and the Wabanaki people emerge from the tree’s wound, placed forever on this land we now call Maine.
As an artist who honors tradition while creating new forms that move beyond conventional baskets, Frey conceives his art as shaping a place of balance within the tensions and imbalances of a contemporary world in which Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources are under continual encroachment. The baskets he creates are themselves emblems of balance, each work structured by keen attention to symmetry so that the overall effect of the work is serene and calming. This juxtaposition of counterbalancing a traditional artform, with a world that largely disrespects and ignores Indigenous traditions, emerges in intricately woven sculptural works whose goal is to imbue the viewer of the piece with a feeling of calm and goodwill. This sense of calm and healing is at the center of Frey’s woven sculptural art.
The European view of fine art, heavily influenced by philosopher Immanuel Kant’s argument that works of art cannot be useful, in the past has excluded ceramics, basket weaving, and quilting from the canon of fine arts, but this exclusion (which adheres to a colonialist structure that is now being interrogated in the art world) is one that Frey’s art vigorously challenges. Yes, his sculptures are functional baskets: they are expertly woven and, being hollow, could hold objects. But preeminently they are sculptural forms that reshape the space around them. A well-made basket is a continual active structure of balance. Curved, symmetrical, stable. Each of his pieces confronts the unstable and imbalanced 21st-century world, offering grace, balance, and peace.
Consider Frey’s Aura: the sculpture rises from a narrow pale base curving into an inverted bell shape, almost like a bird throwing the force of flight into its chest. Aura, woven of uncolored ash with ash treated in rich red dye glows, infusing the space around it with its own vivid energy, so that the piece does not appear static but living. Frey speaks of the importance of harvesting his own wood because that way, he says, he gets to know the tree from the beginning. He begins a conversation with the tree that will become a woven sculpture. He experiences the act of unbalancing the tree’s life trajectory, taking it from its rooted place, and transforming the wood into the woven sculptures that he creates. In this way, Frey explains, he learns the personality of the ash wood of each tree and guides the way that tree becomes the art form he creates. The creation of the basket is the creation of balance from imbalance, weaving the proper relationship between human beings and the natural world we inhabit, honoring the richness of that world.
Frey notes that traditional Passamaquoddy basket making is communal, with families working together to create baskets, and also traditional basket making is highly practical so that traditional baskets, however expertly and gorgeously woven, are not named as individual artworks. Frey’s woven, sculptural art both extends traditional practice and alters it. Because he works alone, each part of the basket he creates himself, from the harvesting of the wood to the pounding of the ash to the dyeing of the ash, to the weaving. Frey states that each sculpture begins as a sketch (and even before that, begins as an image-idea in the artist’s mind) and is realized through the labor of harvesting ash. With the emerald ash borer invading deeper into Maine, the process of finding ash to harvest becomes increasingly challenging.
After the labor of harvesting (felling the tree and hauling it through the woods), splints are removed from the tree by the process of pounding, which delaminates the tree’s growth rings. Frey pounds his own ash using an inherited pounding axe, a tool that is significantly heavier than a standard axe, with the head mushroomed out from years of use. Pounding is intensely taxing work (a White colleague of mine at the University of Maine once agreed to help a friend, a Penobscot woman, by pounding ash for her; he ended up with hands bleeding from the labor, so unprepared was he for how hard it is). Pounding softens the porous ash wood so that the growth rings yield the splints used for weaving. As should be clear from this description, these aspects of Frey’s art are physically demanding and at times dangerous. But this part of the work is essential, he contends, to being able to understand what kind of sculpture each harvested tree is intended to be.
As Frey creates a woven sculpture he allows its personality to assert itself. Permanence, created from ash, cedar bark, and birchbark, has an almost angular tilt as it swells from its base and tapers toward its lid. The energy of the basket’s vertical command defines a tension of balance, the basket holding onto space with an elegant edge. The aptly named work asserts its permanence, the stability of the created piece. A basket can seem to hold a secret, a mystery (we cannot see what’s inside) and yet what it always holds is space itself; a basket divides space and creates space. In its hollowness it has a protective energy. In basket weaving as a sculptural art form, Frey creates essential works for our era of imbalance. The political act of these works is to welcome each person who views the baskets and to offer that person the balance of the art. In this way, he honors Passamaquoddy tradition even as his path is to create original innovative forms.
The quietly beautiful Purity attests to this balance of tradition and innovation. Half the height of his larger works, Purity’s curves are almost spherical and with the gorgeous pale ash and sweetgrass used for the piece this creates a serene sense of a circle’s always-returning compass. In this abiding arc of extending beyond and yet always honoring the balancing practice of tradition, Frey’s sculptural woven art offers an antidote to the imbalance—of politics, of ecology, of climate—that Maine now faces. His first single-artist exhibit, Out of the Woods (at Karma gallery in New York, 28 April–17 June 2023), eloquently articulated contemporary artworks in balance with the natural world. Frey’s work will be coming to the Portland Museum of Art in 2024 as a solo exhibit.
Image at top: Jeremy Frey, Navigating Tradition, black ash, sweet grass, synthetic dye, 6.75 x 9.5 x 9.5 in., 2023.