Consumed: The Basketry of Jane Whitten

24 November 2021
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At the beginning of 2021, Jane Whitten started creating Consumed, a tangible, three-dimensional bar graph constructed from materials gathered in her immediate environment—her single-person household. It is the latest in a body of work that combines her love of baskets, the wide range of textile skills she has developed, and her passion and concern for the environment, climate change and the effects of material waste in our world.

The first piece of Jane’s that I encountered in person was woven into the railings at the entrance of the Mary E. Black Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was a bright, colourful, unexpected encounter that drew me closer to investigate the materials and to learn that this work was made using plastics found on beaches nearby. This is how Jane Whitten’s basketry silently communicates with us, and engages us.

To learn more about Jane Whitten and her work, visit her website or follow her on Facebook and Instagram,

Enjoy a photo gallery of the artist’s work at the end of the article.

Born in Australia, Jane has spent most of her adult life in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and, now, Prince Edward Island. Oceanside memories of childhood, and living alongside the ocean for most of her life, have made her deeply aware of the effect we, as human beings, have on marine life.

A lover of baskets since childhood, Jane made her first through the Nova Scotia Basketry Guild after moving to the province in the late 1980s. The guild provided a place for Jane to learn her craft, from local makers and workshops with international experts. She supplemented this knowledge with further learning outside the province, gathering a collection of techniques in much the same way as she gathers her materials.

“I was interested in the forms they were creating,” Jane says, “the materials they were experimenting with and the joy that shone through that.” She was encouraged to explore and to trust her intuition about materials and form, and she was instilled with a strong sense of honouring the skills passed on to her. “Work must be carefully made and carefully finished,” she says about her process.

image description: a hand-made basket, created from household garbage

Part of Jane’s Consumed series, this piece uses very non-traditional materials in a very traditional way.

The world of contemporary basketry is defined by the use of nontraditional materials in traditional ways and traditional materials in nontraditional ways. Learning the craft of contemporary basketry happens in an organic way. Skills are passed hand to hand from master to student with a generosity that is rare in most learning environments. Techniques, secrets, and philosophies of making are shared openly, with the understanding that each maker’s hands and mind will interpret techniques and materials in unique ways. It is through this tradition that Jane learned her craft, giving credit to those makers who have encouraged her to trust her instincts; to play with materials, technique, and form; and see what emerges. This built on an upbringing that encouraged creative thinking, valued working with one’s hands, and featured the positive influence of living with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), all of which have shaped how Jane creates her work. “My basketry and knitting had always been my nonverbal escape from my work world of intense language—teaching, meetings, reports, presentations, etc. It also gave me time to either be distracted completely and hyper-focus if I was tackling a tricky knitting or basketry piece, or a time to mull things over and silently problem-solve while my fingers did the repetitive movements needed to complete something on which I’d already done most of the creative problem solving.”
Some contemporary basketmakers concentrate on functional forms, while others work sculpturally and conceptually. They can explore materials or form. They can teach and share stories. The world of contemporary basketmaking is diverse and multifaceted. The common ground amongst these makers is in sourcing materials. Basketmakers use materials common to their environment—materials that intrigue them and spark exploration, allowing to them to invent new forms and communicate ideas. Jane first experienced this kind of invention with seaweed in the late 1980s. “Having two small children, I think, brought my vision down to a different level. I noticed bits of kelp and thought that I must be able to do something with it so I collected some to experiment with.” From seaweed, Jane moved on to collecting other discarded materials in the cooler seasons when it was difficult to dry her baskets. “As a basketmaker living in the industrial world, it’s logical that I would use industrially made materials that I find around me, preferably discarded ones… What I love about using [them] is that there’s usually a story that goes with them.” Jane’s work exists to challenge people. She captures their attention with good design and familiar forms, and solidifies her message when they become aware of what the forms are made of, and that instead of going into a landfill they’ve been reimagined.
image description: Three tall green textile vessels hold flower-like bouquets; they are placed on a rocky landscape.

Part of the Sea Anemones series.

“I’ve been trying to create pieces that share the essence of this marine environment, from sea stars to kelp to anemones to sea ice… The intent is to draw the audience in with something that’s familiar to them. As they enter its realm they discover that it’s made out of discarded materials, things that usually end up in the landfill. My hope is that they will engage with the bigger plastics picture… the whole plastic cycle from petroleum extraction to the processing to the manufacturing to the transportation to the distribution [of] plastic that’s impacting the environment globally and is especially wreaking havoc on the marine environment.”

Consumed

Consumed is a series of coiled baskets made from plastic waste from Jane Whitten’s home. Each basket represents waste from one month, and lined up side by side they form a bar graph that clearly shows how Jane’s consumption changes through a year. In a Zero Waste Diary, she records the date, the product and the order in which discarded wrappings will be worked into the piece, including notes and comments that contribute to the story of this piece.

“This process has certainly made me more aware of what I’m consuming and how much I’m discarding. I’ve made an effort to buy larger packets of things I use a lot of to reduce the amount of wrappings. I’m constantly shocked and often say to myself, ‘If you open/eat this it has to go into the basket.’ I’ve had lots of responses and personal messages on social media. People are intrigued with the idea that something that beautiful is made up of my garbage. I’ve had direct messages or comments about if this is just from a one-person household, just think how tall they’d be if there were more people. I have had comments that the work has made them more conscious about the amount of plastic that they’re discarding. It’s all very scary because we know most of it ends up not being recycled but getting dumped in the landfills.”

image description: a hand-made basket, created from household garbage

Consumed: September

image description: A tall vase-like shape is actually a basket made of recycled plastic wrappers.

Consumed: August

image description: a hand-made basket, created from household garbage

Consumed: July

image description: nine hand-made baskets, created from household garbage

Consumed: January to September

Knitted Kelp

Knitted Kelp started as a piece knit out of cassette and video tape. After discovering that there were toxic elements in this material that she didn’t want to expose herself to, Jane sought different materials. Plastic garbage bags—used to pack her belongings for her last move from Australia—cut into long strips became the alternative. “Not only had these pieces of kelp travelled halfway around the world over the ocean, they also told the story of the crisis kelp forests are in because of rising ocean temperatures caused by our dependency on the plastic cycle.”

image description: handmade baskets that resemble sea-kelp, hanging from the ceiling in an art gallery
image description: handknit replicas of sea kelp made from black plastic garbage, staged in a tide pool

Sea Anemones

Sea Anemones is an interactive piece. “I’ve had to figure out the engineering behind them because they’re interactive—you can open them and close them the way an anemone does… It’s one that really engages the viewers, especially when they’re allowed to touch them.”
image description: handmade baskets that resemble sea-anemones, on display in an art gallery

Sea Ice

Sea Ice is a series inspired by colours, forms, noises, and impact of giant floating ice forms on the ocean. These pieces are formed using hard plastic packaging, ubiquitous in most households, collected by Jane and her friends and family: an ideal material because it is translucent, shiny, reflects light, and comes in colours (clear, white and blue) found in sea ice. To connect pieces Jane pierced holes around the edges and crocheted cool water blue fishing line (purchased) using a “fish scale” stitch to add blue lines frequently seen in chunks of ice. 

image description: a display of various items of clear plastic packaging waste, crocheted together

“These hang from the ceiling close enough to touch so they make noise as they move around, create amazing shadows, adding even more dimension to the work. [They tell] the story of my concern for the arctic ice which is so crucial to keeping the earth in balance.”

image description: a close up of three pieces of clear plastic packaging waste, crocheted together
image description: a display of various items of clear plastic packaging waste, crocheted together

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All images courtesy of Jane Whitten.

Copyright © Kim McBrien Evans except as indicated.
Photo of Kim McBrien Evans

About Kim McBrien Evans

Curiosity and exploration are the name of the game for Canadian knitwear designer and indie hand dyer, Kim McBrien Evans. A lifelong love of colour, texture, and pattern prompted Kim to transition from working artist to textile maven. Her knitwear designs are known for their ability to turn an abstract idea into a textile reality while simultaneously fitting and complimenting a wide range of bodies. This design work has lead her to explore how home sewers and knitters can create clothing that fits, while showing professional designers the beauty of inclusive design. Her yarn company, indigodragonfly, is renowned for its vibrant colours, offbeat names, and ever expanding plan for world domination. Her work has appeared in Vogue Knitting, Knitscene, Knit.Wear, Knitting Magazine (UK), A Stash of One’s Own (ed. Clara Parkes), The Sewcialists and Uppercase. She is co-author of Custom Shawls for the Curious and Creative Knitter.

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