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Rousso fiber art part of All-Alaska Biennial 2018
Baskets made from cedar bark, waxed linen and beadwork by Kathy Rousso. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

Fiber artist Kathy Rousso has a long resume filled with fiber art exhibitions, research expeditions, publications and presentations. Recently, she wove another accomplishment into her resume with the acceptance of two of her baskets in the All-Alaska Biennial 2018 exhibition, and one of those two in the “Excellence in Fibers” juried print exhibition.

The All-Alaska biennial is a juried exhibition highlighting contemporary work produced in the state, according to information at www.anchoragemuseum.org. There were 634 submissions from 161 artists for that exhibition, and 48 works by 34 artists were chosen. The show includes artwork of various types, including drawing, painting, crafts, jewelry, metalsmithing and fiber art.

The exhibition opened Oct. 19 and is scheduled to be on view through Feb. 3, before it travels to other Alaska locations through summer 2019.

Rousso’s “Memories of Mexico” basket was created using waxed linen, beads, woven abaca, cedar bark and round reed. Her “Winter Blues with a Hint of Hope” basket, which also was chosen for the “Excellence in Fibers” print exhibition, was made with waxed linen thread, beads, yellow cedar bark and round reed.

Rousso was one of only two Southeast Alaska artists accepted into the Anchorage show.

Rousso created both baskets, “Memories of Mexico” and “Winter Blues with a Hint of Hope” while tending to her husband, who in 2016 was undergoing a liver transplant process at the University of Washington Medical Center.

At a recent interview at a downtown cafe, Rousso talked about her recent work.

She said that the two baskets accepted into the exhibitions are part of the “Transplant Basket Series” she started in 2016.” The series contains 10 baskets she created over the next year while her husband was in the hospital. The final piece in that series, titled “Seven Cats,” was made as a gift for the friend who cared for the couple’s cats while they were away.

“I found out about the All-Alaska Biennial when I was down in Vancouver, B.C., and I was presenting papers at the Textile Society of America conference,” Rousso said.

She explained the background of how she designed the baskets in the series.

“I was studying Babiche, or rawhide bags of the Athabascan, and they made these hunting bags and they have like a band, then they had looping, or knotless netting underneath it,” she said, explaining that her current baskets evolved from a combination of the Babiche techniques and Maori Taaniko weaving, which she learned in New Zealand. She said she has used the twining technique in the Taaniko weaving quite extensively.

“Basically, I like twining because I was a Ravenstail and Chilkat basketry weaver of this area. I also studied Taaniko weaving,” which she described as a Maori cloak weaving technique, using flax fiber.

In a spring 2016 article that Rousso wrote for the National Basketry Organization’s magazine, she took readers on a tour of her experiences that have led to her extensive knowledge of fiber techniques and history.

In 1986, as an agroforestry and soil conservation Peace Corps volunteer in a Guatemalan Kaqchikel Mayan village, she learned backstrap weaving as she talked with artisans and explored the area. Her subsequent visits to Andean South America fueled her further interest in textile art, she wrote, inspiring her, when she returned to Ketchikan, to join classes where she learned Chilkat, Ravenstail, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit weaving.

Between trips to Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala, Rousso traveled to Australia and Indonesia. In Indonesia, she discovered Ikat loom-woven textiles and betel nut containers.

In the late 1990s, Rousso took the leap into a University of California master’s program in fiber art. As a graduate student on a Fulbright grant, she attended a Maori weaving Hui — or gathering — in New Zealand to practice the Taaniko weaving which has heavily influenced her current work.

She wrote in the NBO magazine article that she traveled even more extensively to study basketry techniques to countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and northern Columbia.

One basket style she has been focusing on is a more traditional-appearing basket that she described as having evolved from research on the Athabascan Babiche net bags. A second style she has been recently weaving is a more “organic and spontaneous” approach, using various natural fibers to define spontaneously formed shapes.

To create her Transplant series, she wove the top band first, using her knees as the form. That was a practical approach, as she said she was spending so many hours at the hospital that year with her husband.

“Part of the beauty of this type of working, is I can work anywhere. I roll them up or fold them — these bands,” she said. She finished the bottom sections of the baskets after returning home.

Another way her year of creating baskets at the hospital affected her work is that she wasn’t able to harvest her own cedar bark for the bands. She said she also was reluctant to use yellow cedar, her favorite material, in a hospital setting because some people are sensitive to its oils.

Because she had earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington, she knew her way around the city and was able to gather basketry materials at the local stores to create her new series.

“Eventually, I came up with supplies to start weaving, and so I started weaving baskets, basically, in the hospital,” she said. She said the doctors often were curious and checked up on her progress when they visited the room.

Each band took her about a month to complete, she said.

“Memories of Mexico” was the first basket she created in the series. She had just flown in from Mexico when she met her husband in Seattle. At that time, they’d thought he would have a routine doctor’s appointment, then they would head straight home to Ketchikan.

The second basket she made, “The Transplant,” features four design bands in the top border, which represent the four stages Rousso and her husband experienced in that time period: Waiting for a new liver, the bad liver, the good liver and the recovery.

As her husband’s recovery from the transplant became more difficult and drawn out than they expected, she created her third basket, “Winter Blues with a Hint of Hope,” one of the two that were chosen for the exhibitions.

The ninth basket in the series represented their time staying in Rousso’s parents’ condominium in Glacier, Washington, after her husband was released from the hospital, but while he still needed hospital support. That basket is titled “North Fork of the Nooksack,” inspired by her daily walks along the Nooksack river.

Rousso said her life now is full of mainly two aspects.

“My weaving baskets is one part of my life, and then the other part is the research I’m still doing, in Central America. The show that I had here, ‘A Sense of Place,’ was based on plant material textiles in northern Latin America from Columbia up to southern Mexico,” she said. That show was at the Main Street Gallery in 2016.

Rousso said she has hopes of having baskets from the Transplant series accepted into hospitals for display, as they are deeply infused with her experiences in the medical community.

“I think that’s what art is, though. Giving voice to whatever it is you’re trying to express,” Rousso said.