Made in Sarasota

By staff October 1, 2003

"Not too many people have this in their freezer," says Elizabeth Geisler, producing a bundle of white oak twigs from her refrigerator.

And no one else in Sarasota could possibly have a cornucopia of baskets of all shapes and sizes hanging from the ceiling in magnificent profusion and filling a glass-fronted display case along a wall. It's a staggering sight, especially because nothing in the pleasantly ordinary exterior of the Main Street house hints that a visit to Geisler's home is like stepping into an intimate shrine to the craft of basket making.

Modest and sweet, the unfailingly polite Geisler has an encyclopedic knowledge of her craft. She has made more than 1,000 baskets over the decades, and is recognized as the creator of the tapestry-woven Nantucket-style baskets. These graceful, sturdy baskets are made on a mold, and Geisler was charmed by their origins as a pastime for bored New England fishermen on months'-long whaling expeditions. Nantucket baskets have a wooden base and handle, and Geisler's are works of art with swirling patterns; cherry, walnut or ebony bases and handles (which her husband occasionally turns on his lathe for her); and eye-catching polished gem clasps. Each has a date of completion inscribed on an ivory plaque embedded in the bottom of the basket.

These are sometimes used as handbags, but Geisler's creations-ranging from tiny round hampers to graceful towering urns wrapped in undulating waves of color-can serve a variety of purposes, though most people will probably be loath to pile bread or utensils into one of the elegant beauties. An indicator of good basketry, says Geisler, is how tightly woven a piece is, and Geisler's creations let in little more than lacy pinpricks of light when held up to a window.

Geisler came late to basket making; she studied journalism and education in college, but was a stay-at-home mom and babysitter for many years. When her husband, Charles, retired from his architecture practice in Ann Arbor, MI., they moved to Sarasota, bought a sailboat and moored at Marina Jack for the next eight years. Then one day 20 years ago, Geisler attended a church fund-raiser that turned out to be a basket-making class. She was intrigued, and soon, hooked.

She began to explore different materials, deftly twining cane, ash, oak, cherry, dyed reed, waxed linen and all sorts of Florida plants into forms. She attended courses and studied from experts, including the Arrowmont Arts and Crafts School in Tennessee, and soon began teaching. She's now taught for 10 years at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts and 15 years at the Association of Michigan Basket Makers; has collected numerous awards; been profiled in books and magazines; and was invited by the Smithsonian to show her work at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

But she still views the first pine needle basket she ever made with affection, and says that her happiest hours are spent teaching at home, usually beside the poolside Florida mural that her daughters, also artists, painted for her.

"It's a way of feeling grounded, particularly when you're using natural materials from the earth," Geisler says. "I kind of feel like I'm serving a purpose. Even now."

Even now, meaning even at the age of 80. Geisler is grateful she has no joint trouble and can still use her hands, and has a photographic memory for the craftspeople all over the world from whom she has collected a staggering array of baskets, from miniature ones made of palomino hair to large vivid ones of reed and cane.

"There's much yet to be done," says Geisler. "I'm always anxious to try something new."

You can reach Geisler at (941) 365-2058. Her baskets are on sale at Art Uptown Gallery and sell from about $18 for a garlic basket to about $1,800 for a sculptural piece. 

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