Donya Stockton Isn’t Going Anywhere Near Hell in That Handbasket

The Austin clubland mover-and-shaker weaves much to the imagination

Donya Stockton Isn’t Going Anywhere Near Hell in That Handbasket
Photo by Lori Hopkins

Donya Stockton, co-owner of Austin’s Beerland and Rio Rita and King Bee and the Aristocrat and other popular clubs, is too decent of a human being to take a tire iron to the head of some idiot who makes a crack about “Underwater Basketweaving 101.”

That’s highly fortunate for the idiots of the world. Because, although it’s never underwater and her skills are far beyond any “101” designation, Donya Stockton is also a professional basketweaver.

(In fact, let’s put a finer point on that: Donya Stockton is an award-winning, internationally renowned basketweaver whose finest creations often transcend whatever gap might exist between craft and art.)

Yeah, citizen, we know, we know: We were also surprised to learn that. We thought it was a hoot at first, an interesting bit of trivia, that the ATX clubland mover-and-shaker spent however much time and effort on an activity that’s commonly derided as A Calming Pastime for People in Need of One Form of Therapy or Another.

Like, ain’t that a kick in the pants? Whatta riot, right?

And then we saw a few examples of the woman’s work. And immediately knew that it was no mere hoot, that it was much more than trivial. That we wanted to talk to this Stockton and find out more about her superlative industry – and then tell you and as many other people as possible. Because what Donya Stockton does with basketry is so worth noting. And, yes, also because she and her husband Randall are responsible for some of the best booze-slinging, music-hosting clubs you’ve likely spent a bit of your own leisure time in.

It’s a serendipitous arts/business/human-interest sort of overlap, is what we’re thinking.

Not going to belabor this article with a load of art-criticism observations, though, nor with descriptive wordcraft of less artisanal glory than what Stockton herself wrests from strips of birch bark or bamboo or whatever. Going to simply provide, for your viewing pleasure, a gallery of some of the artist’s best works … and the interview that follows:

Wayne Alan Brenner: How did you get into basketweaving, of all things?

Donya Stockton: Of all things. Well, the really long story … is that I was in college, but I had to drop out for a couple of years, because my parents decided they couldn’t afford to send me to college anymore. So I had to get a real job, and I was working at an insurance company, and it was soul-sucking, and mindless, and horrible. And we lived on 24th at Lamar, and I was driving downtown, back and forth every day, and I drove past Hill Country Weavers, which used to be on 19th at Lamar. And they had a sign out front that said LEARN TO WEAVE. And I thought, I could do that! So I did. And I really loved it. And that was actually loom weaving, it wasn’t baskets. It was a little four-harness table loom. So I learned to weave, and I made scarves for everybody for Christmas. And it was after that, that I was like, “This is what I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to get back to my roots” – which, at the time, I thought were Cherokee. So I made a pair of moccasins and entered them in the Oklahoma State Fair, and won first place for Beadwork/Other, for whatever that’s worth. [laughs]

WAB: Okay, let me ask you a detail thing, here: A table loom that can do fabric, uh, also handles beads?

DS: No, it’s a different thing entirely. There are beading looms, and they are similar, but it’s more like what a tapestry would be, rather than a four-harness loom. Without getting super-technical, the main difference being that, a loom that has four harnesses generally has pedals. Basically what it does, it allows you to program your overs-and-unders, and [interesting but ultimately super-technical description redacted here] …

WAB: So when you won first place with the moccasins, was that the first time you’d used that kind of beading loom?

DS: Yes. I essentially taught myself leatherwork and beadwork at the same time, just to do it. And they weren’t Cherokee moccasins, they were just – I just thought they were cool.

WAB: Still, though, Donya – first place. Had you, like when you were a kid, had you done this sort of thing before?

DS: Not really. I mean, I made a lot of friendship bracelets when I was in high school. I was the king of friendship bracelets, made really big ones and long ones, and I did it all the time. I’ve got friends that will tell you, for a good four or five years, when I was in high school and junior high, I always had a friendship bracelet safety-pinned to my knee, and I’d always run between classes with that, and if I got bored in class I would be working on it. I never learned to crochet. I cannot knit. I did try quilting briefly for a while, but I can’t sew on a machine, so I can only hand-piece. But other than that, actual crafts, I’m not generally good at.

WAB: So you did beading for the first time and won first place.

DS: And then it was shortly after that, UT’s Informal Classes had two basket-weaving classes, and I thought, that could be fun. And I took the two classes. And it was Appalachian-style with natural material and pine-needle baskets. And the lady that taught it, I found out much later, she’d taught herself to weave in a dream. So she kind of didn’t really know what she was doing. And it took me many, many years to un-learn the things that she told us. But, for a long time, I thought that the two of us were the only basket weavers in the whole world. Because I had never encountered another one. I was completely isolated, didn’t know what was going on, that there’s a whole huge group of people out there. And the turning point, I think, was that my aunt called me from Oklahoma and told me that there was a class in Guthrie, a class in Cherokee basket weaving. And I was like, “Oh, my people!” And so I went there, and took the class. And it was amazing. And I was like, This is what my hands are supposed to do. This is the basket I’m supposed to make. And I was really good at it – and I made those baskets exclusively for a really long time. And then time went on, and Randall and I opened Beerland and Rio Rita, and I was sitting at Rio Rita one day, and it was slow and I was looking at the Internet. And there was a show in Tahlequah, an art show for the Cherokee Trail of Tears. And I was looking at their entry requirements, and they didn’t require you to have a number or anything, and I thought, “I can do this.” And I sent them some pictures – and I got in! Which was shocking. So I went to the show. And I stopped in Oklahoma City, and my dad was like, “I want to come with you.” And I thought that was weird, but, okay, why not? So he came with me, and we got there and saw the show. And they’d put, like, all the baskets were over here, but mine was in a different place. And my dad was like, “Yeah, they know you’re white and they’re just making fun of you.” And I was like, “I know, it’s so sad.” And we were just really down on the whole thing. But they had an awards ceremony later, and I ended up winning first place.

WAB: Oh, niiiice.

DS: So I was like, “That’s really cool! How exciting!” And I got this big beautiful ribbon. And the next year they decided that you couldn’t enter if you didn’t have a number.

WAB: A number? What does that mean?

DS: That you’re enrolled in the tribe. So I was like, “Okay, I have to find how I’m Indian.” And so I started going through my genealogy and stuff, because we’ve always had a family oral history that says we’re Cherokee – as does everyone. So that was happening. And while that was happening, they started enforcing the Indian Arts & Craft Act. Which they started in 1990, but they re-did it in 2002 or 2005, and made it a little bit stronger, a little bit harder. And a little bit more enforceable. And what it was designed for was to keep people in China and Mexico from making Indian baskets and selling them – well, not just baskets, but everything – beadwork and kachinas and totems – to preserve their culture for them. And it ended up being, at that time, it was enforced in a kind of awful way. And there’s a huge tradition in anthropology – which I should say, I did go back to school and get an anthropology degree, with a minor in art history – but there’s a strong tendency in anthropology for people to learn about things and then go back and teach a culture, “This is what your artform was. This is what you used to do before we took it from you, stole it and hid it under rocks or whatever, put it in museums and nobody taught it anymore.” Just like how all the indigenous languages are dying, because nobody speaks it anymore. So there’s a tradition in anthropology to learn basket weaving, pottery, leatherwork – just all kinds of stuff – and going back and teaching it to the people. So they were actually prosecuting people who were doing that.

WAB: Oh, man.

DS: And I thought, if they’re doing that for people who are teaching it, then I certainly can’t make and/or sell them. And I hadn’t been so much selling them, but I was teaching classes, and I was like, well, I can’t do that unless I have a number, which I don’t have. And I’d kind of hit a wall on the genealogy thing, so it wasn’t going anywhere.

WAB: Sounds like you were kind of stuck.

DS: [nods] And from there I didn’t know what to do. But I knew that there was this organization that’s called Handweavers Guild of America, and it’s weaving, spinning, dyeing, and basketry. And even at that time, basketry was kind of like the ugly stepchild? It’s not really taken seriously in that organization or many others. But it was in the list of things, and there’s a Certificate of Excellence that you can get in basketry. And so one year – it was 2006 – I decided I was going to go. They have a conference every two years, and I was going. I’d never done anything like that before. And I signed up for all these classes, and I had a class with this lady who was the only person – or possibly one of two – who had won the Certificate of Excellence in the 20 years that they’ve offered it. And I was like, “I have to meet her,” because I didn’t know any other basketweavers. And the conference was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I flew there and met JoAnn Kelly Catsos, who taught the class. She’s a black ash weaver in the Shaker tradition. Which is weaving on molds, and that was really a hard thing for me to get my head around, because I come from the Native American tradition where there are no molds and everything’s about working on shaping and it’s a really big deal. And I always thought molds were cheating, because it’s a mold, you should be able to do this on your own. But the Shakers are so precise and exacting, they have to have molds to make sure everything is perfect. Because they are trying to be God-like, and they have a lot of time on their hands to make things perfect.

[laughter]

DS: So I met JoAnn, and she was amazing. And she asked me if I was a member of the National Basketry Organization. And I was like, “I’ve never even heard of it.” And she was like, “Yeah, that’s kind of the problem: Nobody’s heard of it.” But she told me they were having a conference of their own in two weeks, and she said, “You have to go.” And I was like, “There’s no possible way, this is the first trip I’ve ever taken, I can’t go to the NBO thing too.” But I got home and I told Randall about it, and he was like, “No, you have to go.”

WAB: Now there’s a supportive husband.

DS: He really is! So two weeks later I was in Ohio, in Athens, at this college – I can’t even remember the name of the college – at the NBO conference. And there was only one space in one class that was available, but it was okay because it was what I really wanted to take anyway. So I’m thinking, “I really need to branch out from the Native American tradition that I’m in, because it’s getting me nowhere, I can’t make or sell or teach anything in that genre.” So I took this class with Mary Hettmansperger, who is a noted sculptural basketry person. She’d just written her first book on woven jewelry, and so she’s moved into jewelry now, but she taught this class to six of us, and it was a terrible and amazing experience. There were four classes and we were all in this one room at this hotel, and so there’s all this stuff happening in all sides of us. So every once in a while we’d just take our class and break away and go into this bathroom which was somehow larger than the whole classroom was. So we’d take our stuff into this bathroom and have conversations about what we were making. And Mary was like, “Bring a bunch of stuff and we’ll just play for a couple of days.” We had a four-day class, and we could do whatever. So I’d started this thing, and I was working on it, and she came around and asked, “What are you doing here? Where are you gonna go with that?” And I was just like, “I don’t know, I’m just kind of looking at this thing and trying to figure out what I want it to do.” And Mary was like, “Okay, well, that sounds cool – why don’t you keep doing that?” And I was like, “Well, that’s not what baskets do.” And she said, “Says who?”

WAB: “Says who?”

DS: Yeah! And it was this really transformative thing. Because everybody I’d talked to in my entire life was who says who. And Mary said, “Just do whatever you want.” So I was like, “Okay.” And that – as ridiculous as it is – was the beginning of the end. I had pages and pages of stuff that I’d been drawing for years, how I wanted weaving to do this – and I never knew that I could. And so, yeah, that’s how I got into basket weaving.

WAB: That explains why your baskets piqued my interest. Because our mutual friend Laura Thoms told me that you make baskets. And I was looking at your basket pictures on Facebook and seeing these baskets go by. And whether someone’s doing Native American weaving or Ukranian weaving or whatever-the-hell, a person can make baskets that are perfect; and when you see them, you say to yourself, “Oh, that’s a high level of craft.” But that’s usually where it stops. Not exactly damning with faint praise, but … but then you see things that are more like, “Holy shit, that’s a fantastic artwork that just happens to be made of weaving.” And that’s what your baskets seem like to me. So, if you would, speak a little about the public perception of, you know, “Basketweaving 101.”

DS: Oh my god. It’s a terrible stigma. And I don’t know if you saw it, but Michael Corcoran did an article about Randall and me last year – or maybe the year before? – about the beginnings of Beerland and us as a team, stuff like that. And basketweaving came up in my interview with him. And he said, “Oh, the stigma of the basketweaver!” Like it’s a thing, like people just know that. But it is. And what I get more often than not, is, “Do you do it underwater?” It’s really really frustrating, which is why I don’t tell people that I do it. Which is wrong and terrible: I really should.

WAB: Well, hell yeah.

DS: There’s just this huge separation between my basketweaving world and my club-owning world. And it goes the other way, too: I don’t tell basketweavers that I own bars – because they don’t take it well, either. So it’s this really weird double life that I lead. And I had a huge chip on my shoulder about my weaving for a really long time, because I do take it seriously. And so does everyone else that I know that makes baskets. And even the ones who do stuff that my friend Cathy calls “Kountry Kitchen” – she spells it with a K – even those people take it really seriously. And I don’t know how it got that reputation, but it’s so ridiculous. Because, if nothing else, people knit in public – that’s a thing, and that’s okay. And I don’t know why basketweaving has the stigma, and I don’t know how to fix it, but I have this dream in the back of my mind that I’m gonna write a kind of Stitch'n Bitch for basketweaving and that’ll erase the stigma? But I don’t think it will. I think that, in the Seventies, it picked up this terrible reputation because of liberal arts education in colleges – whether or not it deserves it. And it’s damaging to the art itself, because it makes people not wanna do it, not take it seriously. And it makes it less attainable. I used to have a thing where I’d try to get some friends together and do a project at Rio Rita on a Sunday afternoon or whatever, making a lot of totes for a while – just to get people to learn the basics, so I could have peers. And it never really panned out, because they were always like, “Well, teach me something” instead of “I know this now and I can do it on my own.” And people would walk in and be like, “Basketweaving? I didn’t realize people still did that.” And I have to tell them, every single basket that you’ve ever seen is made by a real person – even the ones they sell at Hobby Lobby for $1.99, those are made by people, because you can’t make it on a machine. You can loom fabric, and that’s a machine-made product, generally; but baskets are always made by people. And it’s just so weird that people have that disconnect, and I’d like to get rid of that, too. Because it’s one of the reasons why I stopped showing stuff at craft fairs: You get these people, and some of them are great and appreciate what you’re doing, but most of them, by and large, they walk up and see your stuff, and they pick it up and look at it … and then they’ll see the price tag and walk away.

WAB: It’s … too expensive?

DS: They don’t realize that that thing you’re charging $30 or whatever for, it took you eight hours of your life. And there’s no way you’re ever gonna recoup those eight hours, or the materials – not even getting into some really expensive, ah, black ash, for instance: It’s about to be extinct. So there’s a lot of stuff that people just don’t get.

WAB: What are the strangest, the most unusual material you’ve ever used? Or, I guess, if we’re talking about wood, the most exotic materials?

DS: I’ve worked with – I have a basket that I did with copper wire. That’s a big thing: it’s really fun to work with, but it gets dented really easy, so that makes it harder. Black ash is really hard to get here – you have to order it from JoAnn, more or less – and willow is really hard to get here. And I really love willow – but I’m not really good at it, so I’m kind of obsessed with it? I’ve done, ah, that rope stuff that you use for upholstery? It’s what you put along the edge of a sofa?

WAB: And there’s, like, a tassel on the end?

DS: Yeah. And for a while I was using duct tape. I have a lot of stuff I made out of duct tape. It’s part of my Stitch'n Bitch-for-basketry project, which is all about alternative materials, because one of the things I think is a hindrance to making baskets is that it’s hard to find the materials. Whenever we do the thing at Rio Rita, when we’re sitting there and weaving, and someone’s like, “Where did you get your straw?” I’m like, “It’s not straw. You order it, because it doesn’t just grow. But you could use grapevine or kudzu.” Or, you know, whatever. Honeysuckle – which does grow here.

WAB: Where do you get your material?

DS: I get most of my stuff from Royal Wood, which is in Ohio, because I’m friends with the lady who owns it. It’s my favorite basketry shop – they have everything. And I have to throw this out there: There is currently an embargo from, I forget which country, but the new president decided, in order to curtail competition for rattan furniture, he wasn’t exporting basket reeds anymore. And so it’s really hard to get basket reeds now – so they’re getting it from pirates. And I love the idea of basket-reed pirates!

[laughter]

WAB: Do you have a schedule of conventions and competitions that you attend each year?

DS: I do. There’s the Texas conference each year – I was a founding member, and vice president for four years, and on the board until January of 2015 – and that’s the weekend after MLK day. And then I’ll go to North Carolina for a week in February, to do a miniature black ash class with JoAnn. And in June I always go to Stowe, the Stowe Basketry Festival in Vermont. Merry Vigneau has a ski lodge, called Round Hearth, and her mother was a basketweaver, and she decided “It’d be really fun if I got my friends together every year,” and this is the 25th anniversary of that. And later in June I’ll be in Iowa for the willow gathering … that’s all that I have scheduled right now. And every now and then something else will pop up.

WAB: What’s the biggest challenge, the most difficult piece you’ve ever completed?

DS: They’re all challenging in their own way. Probably the very first – actually, it wasn’t even the first one – it was the second, no, the third really arty one that I did. And I wanna say it’s called “28.2,” and it was the poster child for the convergence in Tampa Bay, it was on this huge banner at the Tampa Museum of Art, which was amazing. It’s a Celtic knot and it’s small. I entered it into Small Expressions, which is a competition for all media, where a piece has to be less than 11 inches square. Which is fine if you’re a weaver or an embroiderer or whatever, because you can make baskets that small, but the challenge was making it work, because it could have easily not. I had to try to figure out a way to make it, to go over and under the way I wanted it to. Because I did one and it wasn’t what I wanted. So I did another one and it was what I wanted. And this is what it looked like …  [shows image of the completed basket]

WAB: Whoa, damn! It looks like Neil deGrasse Tyson commissioned you to render a black hole.

DS: Right?

WAB: It’s beautiful.

DS: Well, I’m stuck right now. Because I had this idea that they should all be toruses? So I got stuck with everything having a hole in the middle of it. But now I’m trying to not do that.

WAB: You ever use fiber optics?

DS: I have some, but I haven’t done anything with it yet. Somebody had a class, I can’t remember where, but they were talking about fiber optics and I found it really intriguing. And if you scrape the sides of the fibers, it emits light on the sides, too. And I was like, this is the most amazing thing ever. So I really want to play with that – but I just don’t have time.

WAB: Well, it’s not like you’re, what, running several clubs at the same time?

DS: Yeah, that’s ultimately the problem.


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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Donya Stockton, basket weaving, Handweavers Guild of America, National Basketry Organization, Stowe Basketry Festival, Randall Stockton, JoAnn Kelly Catsos, Mary Hettmansperger, Royal Wood, Merry Vigneau, Round Hearth, basketry, black ash

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