Basket Making is Good for Your Health: Leah Dolgoy Interviews Jan Stansell

Basket Making is Good for Your Health: Leah Dolgoy Interviews Jan Stansell

When I found out Pattie Bagley (Resident Artist for Baskets, Brooms, and Chair Seats/local mischief maker) was teaching an introductory rib baskets class, I knew I wanted a spot in the class. Right before coming down to the Folk School to begin my term as a second-time host, I completed my masters degree in Occupational Therapy (OT) – a rehabilitation profession that focuses on working with people to regain function and get back to meaningful occupation (self-care, leisure and work) after illness, injury or disability. Traditionally OTs have used crafts such as basket-weaving as a way to work on rehabilitation-related goals. There is also a strong connection between OT and the Folk School. Murray Martin, who was integral to the growth and success of the Brasstown carvers, was trained as an occupational therapist.  For all these reasons, I knew it would be a special week for me. What I didn’t know was that Jan Stansell, an expert basket-maker, long-time Folk School instructor, and recent stroke survivor, would be one of my classmates. 

Jan agreed to sit down and have a chat with me at the end of our week together.

Jan on the Keith House porch.

Jan on the Keith House porch.

LD: Tell me about your history with this craft. What kind of baskets do you like to make best? What is meaningful to you about basket weaving?

JS: Oh gosh – I probably started 30 years ago just as a little hobby. It was one of those hobbies that became a small business.  I learned initially from someone in the town where I was living. Generally people who have made baskets as long as I have tend to specialize in one kind or another (whether it be Nantucket, or naturals etc). I never did. I always called myself a basket generalist. Whatever class was going on that sounded interesting, I would come and try it, and generally incorporate it into my work. I guess what’s meaningful to me about baskets is that along with pottery, it is just such an old craft and an old way of doing things. You can also go in so many different directions with it – the artistic end, the functional end. You can use traditional materials or go to something else entirely.


Jan working on the finishing touches of a basket.

LD: I understand you have a very long history with the Folk School. Can you tell me more about your relationship with JCCFS?

JS: My very first class here was 26 years ago. It was a white oak baskets class and was fairly advanced. It was so exciting to discover a whole other way of life and that there were people who just loved to be together and make things, and make music. At the time, I was not a person who made a lot of long-term goals in my life. I would go to these seminars at work and they would say “you’ve got to set goals, you’ve got to do this or that.” And I thought to myself “if I had a goal, what would my goal be?” And I thought “I know! My goal will be to teach at Folk School.” So I started thinking to myself about what I would have to do to make that happen. I suppose I’d have to get a portfolio together, volunteer to assist in a class and make myself known. And then as I was mulling this over I was at a craft show, and a woman who happened to be in charge of programming at the Folk School approached my booth. She asked if I ever taught at the Folk School. I said “No.” She asked if I’d like to. I thought to myself – this goal-setting thing is a cinch! If I had known that, I would have been setting goals years ago! It was at a time when the Folk School was actively looking for instructors so I started coming up as an instructor 20 or 25 years ago. Over the years, I have met so many wonderful people. Coming here is not like going away; it’s like coming home. I used to cry going home from Folk School (laughs).

LD: What did you want to be when you grew up, Jan?

JS: I think I wanted to be a cowboy but that didn’t quite work out! (laughs) I have always liked arts and crafts – ever since I was little.  When people would give my big brother a model plane kit, I would always be the one to put it together.  I have always been into figuring out how things fit together and into making stuff.

LD: I understand that you are recovering from a recent stroke.  Can you tell me a little about how things are going?  I know it has affected your whole life, but also made a particularly huge impact on your life and identity as a basket maker.

JS: I had a stroke about 6 months ago. I was camping in the Smokies when it happened. I got some very good, quick medical care in Asheville, and survived. But it really of course changed my life completely. I went through a period of mourning for my old life, and had to accept that I was going to have to figure out how to keep on living. I didn’t lose my speech but I lost a lot of physical function. My physical therapy went quite quickly. I was up and balancing, kicking balls and doing all the things they make you do. But the cognitive therapy was a lot harder, and I am still doing that on an out-patient basis. Upon finding out I was a basket maker, my occupational therapist (OT) said “surely you want to go back to basket-making.” And I just wasn’t sure. I thought maybe that part of my life was over and this was a time that I was supposed to go in a different direction. I just really didn’t know. But she said she really wanted me to bring in some materials and for me to teach her how to make a basket.

Jan's FIRST basket post-stroke!

Jan’s FIRST basket post-stroke!

LD: Yeah! Learning basket making used to be such an important aspect of occupational therapy training. OTs traditionally used it as a way to work on all sorts of rehabilitation goals: everything from hand strength and dexterity, to concentration and attention, to working on interpersonal skills in a group setting. I think in a lot of cases, they don’t teach it in OT school anymore, or certainly this was the case for me. Your therapist hit the jackpot with you as a patient!

JS: So yes – we compromised. I brought in a little stool and we wove a twill design seat for it. I thought I would be more competent with that on my first try. But I wasn’t.  It was quite frustrating. Now we are working on a basket. I think I will resume making baskets but not as a business. And I keep saying I will start in the spring, but we’ll just have to see how it goes. When I saw Pattie was teaching a beginning class, I figured it would be a good opportunity to feel like a beginner again (to get in touch with how beginning students feel). I knew Pattie was such a good teacher, and I knew the Folk School would be a safe place for me. It’s easy to get around on foot. I knew there would be plenty of people to help me cross the road (I did lose a fair bit of sight with my stroke). And it’s worked out really well. The baskets certainly have been a challenge for me this week. In some cases, I can remember what I should do at a certain point, but I can’t quite figure out how to get my hands to do it.

LD: I know this week you completed your first (and second) basket post-stroke which is just incredible. Your OT is going to be super jazzed.

JS: Yeah – I’ll take my baskets in to show her when I get home.

Jan being her radiant, resilient self.

Jan being her radiant, resilient self.

LD: What would you like to say to other people who may be in a similar situation to yours? In particular, what is your advice to other craftspeople who may have experienced an injury like a stroke?

JS: I would say don’t think that you have to do anything. There is just a certain amount of time that has to elapse (at least in my experience) before you’re ready to do certain things and if you try too soon, it’s just going to be frustrating for you.  On the other hand, if you want to get back into your craft, it’s amazing what can happen.  And the Folk School is such a special place. Maybe if you come for basket weaving, you’ll end up spending a bunch of time with the storytellers or the blacksmiths. There are just so many opportunities for enrichment and exchange with people. Every time I go to the Folk School, I come home with a new reading list. Of course recovery is always different for different people, and you should not have a timetable for resuming your craft because there are so many factors that will influence when or if you should do so. However, coming to the Folk School to resume my craft seemed natural for me. This is such a nurturing place. I’m sure I will continue to come as a student.  I am officially retired from teaching. I don’t see that as something I will be able to get back to (stress, driving etc.) but that could change too. You never know.

LD: Is there anything else you want to share?

JS: Just hello to all my Folk School friends who might be reading this. (Smiles)