From the crushing poverty of Appalachian Kentucky came an original and unique American artwork of unparalleled beauty.
Before she moved to Johnson County, and then after, Linnie Higdon would use an ice pick, scissors and a pocketknife to shape baskets that were both lightweight, sturdy and intricately decorated.
Strips of shiny maple wood were woven together with nimble hands to create some of the most celebrated baskets in the antiquing world.
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“She had an extraordinary life. I want people to see the beauty that came out of her hardship,” said Elisa Walters, Higdon’s daughter. “Her baskets were so immaculate and beautiful. She was a true perfectionist with hers.”
Higdon’s skill, craftsmanship and artistry will be on display in a new exhibit opening at the Johnson County Museum of History. “Linnie Higdon: Artistry of Necessity” will showcase Hidgon’s Appalachian egg baskets, taking museum visitors into her weaving workshop and through her life.
Along the way, people will see how the baskets would come to life from maple tree saplings to pliant strips of fiber to finished masterpieces.
“When we think of baskets today, they’re more decorative. But this is what people used before there was plastic or anything. This was the only option you had,” said Theresa Koenigsknecht, museum curator. “They’re very utilitarian, and they’re beautiful.”
Higdon was born and raised in Grayson County, Kentucky, a heavily rural area located in the central part of the state.
She learned to weave baskets from her older family members, mostly her sister, Walters said. Their specialty was the Appalachian egg basket, a unique design.
Hidgon’s family traded the baskets they made for groceries, sometimes even selling them for 10 cents apiece. During the Depression, when new highways brought more people to the Appalachia area, they sold the baskets to tourists.
Over time, the pieces have become collectors’ items and artwork.
“Initially they used them for vegetables and eggs — they were a utility. Nobody had paper sacks or plastic sacks,” Walters said. “But as tourists started coming through, they added embellishments and decorations.”
When Higdon and her family moved from Kentucky to Johnson County in the 1930s for jobs as migrant workers, she brought the basket-making skill with her.
Higdon raised 10 kids while living in Franklin, which put her basket-making on hold. But once her children were grown, she returned to basket-weaving again in the 1970s.
The first time her baskets went on display was at a bazaar held by St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. The response was overwhelming; throughout the 1980s, Higdon was making about 100 baskets each year.
“People loved them. She started giving them away at her church and other places, and selling them,” Koenigsknecht said. “That’s what makes it so unique to Johnson County — she brought this Kentucky artcraft and transplanted it here.”
The exhibit is an idea that has been circulating among local antiquers and the museum for a few years.
Higdon died in 2000 at the age of 78. Following her death, family friends who knew of her skill wanted people to learn more about her.
Walters, an Edinburgh resident, was invited to speak about the baskets at a meeting of the Edinburgh Antique Club. The presentation was so popular that members went to the history museum urging them to do an exhibit.
Museum officials connected with Walters and other members of Higdon’s family, secured examples of her work and figured out a time to feature an exhibition.
For the family, it was an honor to have Higdon’s work recognized.
“When she was first making the baskets for tourists, she was making maybe a dime per basket. But the dealers would then sell the baskets without giving any recognition to the artists who made them,” Walters said. “There are a lot of people whose art went unknown. This exhibit will hopefully open people’s eyes.”
Photographs of Higdon and her life will be woven into the exhibit alongside her baskets. A recorded interview that she did before her death will play over speakers.
Antique tools such as steel scissors, picks and pocketknife that Higdon used will be laid out.
Higdon’s husband, Charles, would chop pieces of maple sapling 2 to 4 inches in diameter. After quartering the pieces lengthwise, Higdon would go to work with a knife.
But the most important tool used in the process was her hands, Walters said.
“She put everything together with strength and wood. There were no nails or glue or anything,” she said. “She used an ice pick to poke holes in the hoops to place the ribs of the basket, and a pair of scissors to cut strips. Everything else was her.”
That will be evident in the detail of baskets that will be included in the exhibit. Everything from large bushels used to haul groceries to tiny decorative pieces that could barely hold one egg emphasize the range of Hidgon’s skills.
Museum organizers are figuring out ways to recreate her Franklin workshop, with the chair near a woodstove where she wove for so many hours.
“We’re going to focus on Linnie’s life and craftsmanship in general,” Koenigsknecht said. “We’re going to show exactly how intricate the process was, and how this is something that people did for generations and generations that she carried on.”
The exhibition will be a chance to celebrate Higdon, and the opening on Nov. 20 will bring the whole family together, Walters said. Her mom was a winemaker in addition to a basket-weaver, so they will be uncorking one of her vintages and toasting her.
“I’ve always been proud of my mom. But this gives her the recognition she’s due,” Walters said.
Linnie Higdon: Artist of Necessity
What: A celebration of the life and basket-weaving artwork of longtime Johnson County resident Linnie Higdon.
Opening: 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 20; Higdon’s daughter Elisa Walters will give a presentation at 6:30.
Where: Johnson County Museum of History, 135 N. Main St., Franklin
Runs until: April 2016