Rural Living, Specialty/Niche April 01, 2023
Wandering with Willows
Artist rekindles nomadic tradition of willow weaving through woven installations.
"'There aren't enough mushrooms in the woods to support our family,' was my wife, Shannon's, reaction when I got the idea there had to be something I could forage from nature and turn into products people would desire," says willow artist Justin Roberts. She's since become her willow-weaving husband's biggest supporter and collaborator.
"Shannon is the true artist, the poet. She takes the lead on design for our woven willow art installations and crafts the concepts and meanings behind the pieces. She even writes the grants for our larger designs. I'm just the guy that bends sticks," he says.
An aspiring chef at the time of his plant-based epiphany, Roberts had recently watched a documentary based on the best-selling book The Botany of Desire. The tome explores how humans relate to the plant world and how certain plants (apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes) have evolved to be essential for basic human needs. According to author Michael Pollan, those needs are sweetness, beauty, pleasure, and sustenance.
There may not have been enough mushrooms in the woods to support their family, but there were plenty of willows. One Easter, Roberts started bending them into shapes and hasn't stopped since.
The Murray, Kentucky, native's first project was an Easter basket for his son. When the holiday concluded they replanted the basket in the woods instead of just tossing it in the trash like its plastic peers.
"We were tired of throw-away culture," Roberts says. After a few years of self-taught weaving, Roberts stumbled upon master willow furniture builder, George Beard, in his own hometown.
"I looked him up and knocked on his door. Our first conversation lasted four hours," Roberts says. Soon Roberts was Beard's apprentice and his family moved in with the 80-year-old craftsman.
Beard picked up willow weaving while working as a migrant fruit harvester in the 1960s. He watched a man in Illinois build an armchair and thought he could do it, too.
It wasn't as easy as it appeared. Beard threw his first attempt at a chair on the fire before rescuing it and rebuilding it. Fifty years later, he would happily share his hard-learned lessons with Roberts.
It was an incredible opportunity. By then, the master craftsman had a piece in the Smithsonian and a willow ornament hanging on a White House Christmas tree.
He was happy to have Roberts as an apprentice, dubbing him a natural with big ideas. He was right.
Roberts found willow weaving was, and is still, a traveling trade.
"It was feast or famine during the four years we lived with George and worked to establish our trade," Roberts says. He recalls arriving at markets far from home with only a few dollars to his name and some chairs to sell.
"I would park, find some local willow to harvest and sell the chairs I had at the show I was at. I would head home with $5,000 in my pocket and supplies for my next builds. It is a trade that requires a lot of faith," he says.
Seasonal demand had Roberts picking up off-season odd jobs, often for Murray State professors.
"I spent a lot of time removing invasive plants from their land," he says. It made him more aware of the many invasive species he saw while he gathered willows in environments across the country as he traveled for his trade.
An idea began to take root.
Woven message. Willows are a sustainable building material. The same plant can be harvested for decades. Roberts learned willows could be used to remediate soils with heavy metal pollution, stabilize eroding stream banks, maybe even serve as a renewable bio energy source. They could also be used to educate.
Justin and Shannon had the idea to create large outdoor willow sculptures using invasive species, such as privet and Bradford pear, for the base structure.
"The pieces would represent regenerative willows choking out the invasive species," Roberts says.
Two such structures were installed at the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest south of Louisville and another at the Josephine Sculpture Park in Frankfort.
Roberts was named artist-in-residence for both parks in 2019. The opportunity allowed him to build themed structures linking the two art destinations.
Sounds of the Whippoorwill was installed on the banks of the Bernheim's Lake Nevin.
The installation sought to bring awareness to dwindling Eastern Whippoorwill populations due to habitat loss, says Jenny Zeller, Bernheim's Arts in Nature Curator. It delivered.
"It was a community project. Volunteers helped harvest invasive species throughout the arboretum and incorporate them into a work of art that bobs and weaves through the landscape," she says.
In total, the three sculptures resulted in 3,000 invasive species being removed from three communities by 400 volunteers, Roberts says.
Volunteers left with new knowledge and a connection to the landscape. The pieces encourage exploration, natural play, and curiosity. "When Roberts went to touch up the pieces, passing hikers wanted to help," Zeller says. "We should have advertised it as an event!
"Roberts is happy to let people help, he says, as he bends cut willows over his knee to limber them up, or wraps them around his foot.
"People think there's a lot of technique, but it's mostly just being patiently curious and problem solving as you go," he says, holding a tautly arched willow end while walking its length. "In the end, you can only do what the sticks will let you do." ‡
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