BEREA — To the outsider, Jennifer Heller Zurick's studio smells of spice. But really, it is the scent of willow fiber.
For more than 30 years Zurick has worked with the willow that covers the loft in the tiny studio outside her home in rural Madison County, a compound of fairy tale beauty.
The view to the outside is sumptuous. The view indoors, of baskets and materials that give off a honeyed glow, is even better.
Willow bark is a somewhat uncommon material for baskets. But then, Zurick is a somewhat unusual basketmaker.
Self-taught, Zurick, 58, was working in textile production at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill when she made a hickory bark basket that caught the eye of a visiting gallery owner. Shortly thereafter, Zurick would leave Shaker Village to begin working on baskets full-time.
Her baskets — which vary in price from $475 for miniatures to $3,000 and up for larger models — feature elaborate designs. And, while many have handles and could technically be used as containers, they are meant for artistic contemplation rather than hauling.
One of her baskets is the permanent collection of a Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. It was part of a collection donated by Martha Ware and Steve Cole, who said in a previously published interview that the donated basket "has so much life and presence it breathes."
The Smithsonian basket has elaborate, bead fluting at the top, with rows of secondary densely woven patterns and a slouchy tightly woven body. It is a mesmerizing design, and Zurick's studio is full of other designs that are just as captivating.
Zurick works on individual baskets for weeks or months at a time. She describes her design aesthetic as traditional with a twist, inspired in part by Native American work.
Currently, she is incorporating honeysuckle into her baskets, giving them the appearance of interlocking tree roots.
"My use of material, design, the way I'm mixing up all these techniques in one piece, that's my signature," she said. "... They look old and they look used because they're intricate."
In 2010, Zurick won a $50,000 unrestricted grant from United States Artists, a nonprofit organization that champions American artists. Fifty artists nationwide win the grant each year, and United States Artists says on its website that it supports the nation's "finest living artists," among them dancers, filmmakers, poets and conceptual artists.
It "was an amazingly gratifying, exciting, almost unbelievable and rather surreal experience to receive the phone call informing me that I had been a awarded an unrestricted, no-strings-attached $50,000 fellowship," Zurick said. "It has definitely been the most stimulating highlight event of my quiet basket-making career, so far."
Every year or two, Zurick, a Kentucky native, will harvest the willow, peeling strips off trees and then re-planting. Her brother, a mushroom farmer nearby, helps her with the harvest.
She takes one to two trees every year or two, looking for trees that are 11/2 feet in diameter. She scores around the edge of the tree, then peels back the long strips of bark.
Harvesting must be done in the summertime, when the sap is up.
The strips are sun-dried until they get what Zurick calls "good and crispy," then hung in the studio's loft to cure for at least four to six months. When Zurick wants to work with them, she soaks them to rehydrate the fiber, which usually takes several hours, then cuts the fiber into skinny strips.
Willow is a common tree. "It is pretty prolific. They can be invasive, actually," she said.
Zurick discovered willow's potential for basket-weaving serendipitously in the 1970s, as she was clearing land and noticed the willow bark.
She credits Lexington artist Bob Morgan and friend Pamela Buchman's creative influences with helping her early exploration of willow bark.
"When we took them to craft fairs, people said, 'I've never seen baskets made of this before.'"
Zurick realized that she had found her art: "By having something they had never seen before, that makes it more sellable" and collectible, she said.
"As I experienced the material I kept going finer and finer with it," Zurick said, explaining that experiencing the textile-like quality that gives her baskets their soft, tactile appearance.
Working on her own has allowed Zurick to develop a unique design esthetic, which she said has slowly evolved: "You mix it up, trying something new with each piece," she said. "If you get too repetitive, you're going to get bored with it. ... I learn from each basket."