Bored, with no one to stop by for coffee, Bea Whitehead started making baskets. Twenty years later, at 88 years of age, she isn’t stopping.
Bea was a 4th grade school teacher in Pennsylvania for 27 years. She moved to Delaware 20 years ago with her husband to the farm that’s been in the family since about the 1730s.
“I’m here on a farm, with no neighbors, no one to drop in and have coffee with me. And I thought, ‘Gosh, what will I do?’ And I decided I would take a course in basketry,” Bea said.
After spending a week in Tennessee learning how to make baskets, Bea was hooked and has been making baskets ever since.
Borrowing from Mother Nature
Bea’s baskets use things she finds in nature. You can often see her walking in the woods around the farm, where she finds all manner of “ingredients.”
“You’ll see me out in the winter, walking through the woods, looking for honeysuckle vines, pulling them down, wrapping them up, bringing them home,” Bea said.
Not limiting herself to just baskets, Bea also uses gourds in her work.
“Baskets were big about 10 years ago, down here in Delaware anyway; and then that phase passed. So about five years ago, I guess, I saw a gourd someone made and thought, ‘Gee, wouldn’t that be fun?’ So then I started growing gourds out in the fields here, and that was a fun experience.”
Bea has samples of her baskets, as well as her gourds, all around her house. Her workroom has a witche’s hut feeling to it — lots of leaves, feathers, vines and other things in various states of drying hanging all around the room. There are all kinds of things stored on shelves and organized into bins for her use.
Its actually very cozy, you feel at home in the space. Bea said she spends many hours in that room. “I work on baskets practically every day, at least a couple of hours. Some of the large baskets take me days to do” she said, adding her favorite thing about the process is gathering and processing all the items she incorporates into the work. She also enjoys the creation phase — constructing the frame that will become the basket.
“I think the [most special] time is trying to construct the framework around the basket. What is it going to be? What shape is it going to take,” Bea said.
The shape the basket will take starts with the handle. “If it’s a very curved handle of honeysuckle or something, then it takes some maneuvering, and looking and pinning it together, clamping it here and there until I get a shape that looks as though it might make an unusual basket.”
Bea shows her work in about six different shows a year. Her creations can be found at craft fairs hosted by the Lewes Historical Society, as well as at the Rehoboth Art League. You can also find her work on display at the Mispillion Art League, where she teaches classes as well.
For love of the work
But why at 88-years-old does she feel the need to continue at this pace?
“It keeps me busy. I’m a person that has to be busy, doing something at all times. Now it might just be reading, but I’m reading up a storm, and making baskets in a crazy fashion, I guess,” she said. “I just love doing! It’s fun to create something from nothing, to make something. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do this,” said Bea, whose 88th birthday was the day before our interview. “I think, ‘Good Lord! It’s time for you to stop this nonsense!'”