Heritage & Hope: Bessie Johnson’s Folk Art Revival

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story and photos by Lindsay Pace 

Rooted in the soil of Bessie Johnson’s backyard is a longleaf pine tree. To see its tawny, rutted bark, you’ll pass two white churches – the kind of unembellished structures that sing of heritage and tradition – in the rural Tibbee Community of West Point, Mississippi. There, she keeps the craft of pine needle basket weaving alive, sharing with her community the art that is her foundation.

 Master basket weaver and folk artist Bessie Johnson has practiced pine needle art for over 50 years. Since 1978, when she was welcomed into the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, she has traveled across the country, exhibited for the Smithsonian and decorated a tree for the White House.

Now a folk art phenomena, Johnson’s roots wind back to a little girl in Clay County whose parents were adept in crafts like weaving and quilting. 

Johnson’s father understood weaving as a means to an end. He would intertwine strips of split white oak into baskets tall enough to fill with cotton and sturdy enough to carry across the field in harsh weather. 

He was one of many using their crafting skills to ease the strain of labor and inequity. Johnson says that during the Great Depression, people were apt to make hats, baskets and other tools to save money, relying on publications from the United State Department of Agriculture to teach them how.  

“You know, back then, they would do what they had to do,” she said. “The community schools, they taught pine needle basket weaving and art from nature.”

Now, Johnson is the teacher. After retiring from a 30-year stint teaching home economics, she continues sharing folk art with students, church members and the elderly. She’s brought folk art to every school in her tri-county area, and it’s this dedication to community that tilted her craft into the public gaze.

“In my early career, I did a program for senior citizens at Mississippi State,” she said. “Somebody there picked up my name and gave it to the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, and it got to the Mississippi Arts Commission. And that was my beginning of going public with [folk art].”

After 10 years of recognition with the Guild, she began to garner national attention.

The accomplishments she speaks most fondly of, though, are rooted in Mississippi, like the Governor’s Award for Excellence in 2010, or being named a Hometown Hero during West Point’s sesquicentennial celebration. To Johnson, her art is her heritage, and with the craft itself dwindling in popularity, it’s a heritage she’s compelled to keep alive.

“It’s a lot of work in basket weaving,” she said. “A lot of patience. It’s slow.”

To work with pine needles, which grow abundantly in southern Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, they must be sourced. Johnson harvested her first collection when visiting her in-laws in Prentiss, and she’d often gather some from a neighbor on Highway 50. Finally, she planted a longleaf pine tree in her own soil and began cultivating an endless supply.

Johnson harvests needles in July, making sure not to perform any yard work beforehand that could damage them. She rinses and dries them, later pulling a tiny cap off the ends. Part of the wonder of her craft is that pine needles remain indefinitely flexible, usable. If they stiffen, a quick soak in water revives them.

Once groundwork is laid, Johnson follows a simple method: “Wrap, fold, secure, repeat.” She says her crafts are unlike those that depend on paced perfection, on keeping place without anomaly.

“You don’t lose yourself,” Johnson said, laughing. “It’s that simple. Once you get the basics, you know you’ve got it made.”

Johnson’s favorite pieces are ornamented by black walnuts. She splits and softens the nuts in water before slicing them into thin layers, soon to be plaited with pine needles. Another favorite, her “Trio” basket includes pine needles, pine cones and a bowl made of pine wood. It’s one of her best sellers, and for good reason: those who purchase her work honor its magic and craftsmanship. 

In fact, one of Johnson’s works was so beloved that it was returned to her after the client’s death. 

“His wife passed away. He got in touch with me and asked me to accept the baskets back that he had bought about 20 years ago for his wife,” she remembers. “He talked about how she treasured them, and he wanted them to be back in a safe place.”

Just as treasured as her baskets is Johnson’s burnt matchstick art, a relatively new venture for her. She calls it an art of necessity: She needed something suitable for the public school system, whose education programs are historically underfunded in Mississippi. Due to its affordability, matchstick art does the trick.

It simply requires matchsticks (which she burns ahead of time for safety), glue, a base to build upon, and toenail clippers. Matchstick art is commonly referred to as “prison art” for its modest budget and uncontentious tools, she notes. 

Johnson will pack the matches in a votive, place them over a boiler, light them and cover tightly to snuff out oxygen. She prefers to do this about three weeks before she needs them, but just as with pine needles, she keeps a large supply at the ready. 

Later, students will glue scorched matchsticks onto a base, such as a picture frame or vanity tray. It sharpens fine motor skills, and keeps hand and finger muscles agile – so she is particularly fond of sharing this with the elderly, too.

Johnson’s personal matchstick pieces are much more intricate. Think: vases reminiscent of Amphora or Neoclassical movements and umbrella holders. 

Most of Johnson’s designs follow a Trip Around the World quilting pattern – a favorite of her mother’s. Its form is geometric and plainsailing, patterned by squares and triangles. 

In this way, Johnson considers both burnt matchstick art and weaving to be a “revival” – a link to her history and heritage, her birthright as a maker, a gift from her youth. Because when she creates, she does so in the likeness of her mother and father, and in the spirit of hallowed tradition.

“I’m in the process of trying to give back, because I was given so much. That was my foundation – my childhood was my foundation.”  

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