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Clara Neptune Keezer

Aug. 3, 1930

State
Tradition
Year
United States Map Highlighting Maine
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Clara Neptune Keezer learned basket making and woodworking from her family on the Passamaquoddy tribal land in Maine. She has passed her painstaking art along to two of her sons and to apprentices, though it's hard to find people with the patience necessary to master the work. Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Baskets by Clara Neptune Keezer, Courtesy Clara Neptune Keezer
Baskets by Clara Neptune Keezer at the Camden, Maine, Library, November 1, 2005, courtesy Clara Neptune Keezer
Clara Neptune Keezer making a basket. Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Clara Neptune Keezer making a basket. Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Clara Neptune Keezer, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Basket by Clara Neptune Keezer, courtesy Clara Neptune Keezer
Clara Neptune Keezer making a basket, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Basket by Clara Neptune Keezer, courtesy Clara Neptune Keezer
Baskets by Clara Neptune Keezer, courtesy Clara Neptune Keezer
Basket by Clara Neptune Keezer, courtesy Clara Neptune Keezer

Clara Neptune Keezer was born on the Passamaquoddy tribal land of Pleasant Point in Perry, Maine, into a family that had been known for basket making and woodworking for decades. She received little formal instruction, learning instead by watching and emulating older members of her family.

Keezer described for NEA interviewer Mary K. Lee the experience of making her first basket: “I was 8 years old, and I was in Old Town with my grandmother, where she was from. We would go there for the summer sometime. I just wanted to make a little one. Usually there were tourists that came by and wanted to buy baskets. I had this little one almost finished. I made it on a jar, a mustard jar or a mayonnaise jar, I don’t remember just what. But I made that, and I finished it with the help of my grandmother. I sold it for fifty cents, and I was proud.”

As Keezer’s skills grew, she created a variety of baskets, including a number shaped like berries and fruit. First she made a strawberry basket, in response to a request from a customer. “So I looked through some books. I knew what a strawberry looked like, but I just wanted to get the shape of it right. I bought some plastic fruit, and that’s how I got started on the small berries, the strawberries, using the plastic fruit as a mold … blueberry, apple, plum and a corn basket. I worked on all them.” She also created stylized baskets of her own design, including ornamental ears of corn and little bumblebees crafted from split ash. Most difficult, she says, is the pillow-shaped star basket. “You have to be real careful of the measurements. If you make one little mistake, it doesn’t look right, and it’s very hard to take it apart.”

The process is painstaking. Her primary materials are ash and sweet grass. “There’s a lot of work to prepare the ash,” she told Lee. “The men have to pound the ash to get the strips off. Then we have to split it and gauge it — scrape it and gauge it for the fancy baskets we want to make — and that’s really hard work. We usually try to get everything done in one day. That way, we can set it aside and get it whenever we need it. My son picks the sweet grass, and we clean it and put it in small bunches, hang it up to dry. After it’s nice and dry, we wrap it up and put it in a dark place, like a closet or under the bed. It will keep for a long time.”

Keezer has passed her art along to two of her sons and to apprentices, though she said it’s often hard to find people with the patience necessary to master the work. “I enjoy taking these ideas and turning them into beautiful baskets,” Keezer said. “I feel that I am not only passing on an Indian tradition, but if someone takes the time to tell me that my baskets are beautiful, that means everything to me.”

Bibliography
Anstead, Alicia. “Creating a Heritage; Passamaquoddy Elder Honored for Career as Basket Maker.” Bangor Daily News (July 2002).
Coe, Ralph T. Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985. (Seattle: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.)
Dransart, Penny, Howard Morphy and Linda Mowat, eds. Basketmakers: Meaning and Form in Native American Baskets. (New York: University of Oxford Press, 1991.)
Dolloff, Aimee. “Maine Woman Earns NEA Folk Arts Award.” Bangor Daily News (August 2002).
Esposito, Susan. “Pleasant Point Basketmaker Receives Artist Fellowship.” Quoddy Tides (November, 1995).
Gold, Donna. “Ancient Tradition Passes from Mother to Son.” Reviews & The Arts (January 1996).
Ivey, Catherine. “Indian Art Preserves Way of Life.” Bangor Daily News (August 1997).
Keyes, Bob. “Native Talent.” Maine Sunday Telegram (August 2002).
Lukens, Alice. “Women Keep Native American Tradition Alive.” The Ellsworth American (July 1995).
“Passamaquoddy Basket Maker Wins Prestigious Award.” The Associated Press (June 2002).
Routhier, Ray. “Maine Basket Maker Earns Prestigious NEA Fellowship.” Press Herald News (June 2002).
Sylvain, Paul. “Passamaquoddy Woman Honored for Basketmaking.” Bangor Daily News (November 1993).

Filmography
WABI TV5. Videotape. DMV63 Panasonic.

Watch

Baskets by Clara Neptune Keezer, 2002 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., interview by Nicholas R. Spitzer, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts.

Clara Neptune Keezer, Interview on WABI Channel 5, Bangor, Maine


Listen

Clara Neptune Keezer answers the question 'How did you sell your baskets?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002. Interview by Alan Govenar

Clara Neptune Keezer answers the question 'Can you talk a little bit about when you were born and where you are from?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002. Interview by Alan Govenar

Clara Neptune Keezer answers the question 'So you've been making baskets your whole life?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002. Interview by Alan Govenar