A Chat with Linda Lugenbill, Basketmaker and Dye Gardener

Wisdom, grace, kindness, creativity … a strong back: these are things we admire and welcome when they enter our lives. Linda Luggenbill’s got this stuff down and, as a founding member of the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden, has been a welcome friend and guide to other gardeners, both new and seasoned.  Well known for her beautiful basket designs and as a teacher of basketry, Linda’s been using our plants to dye her reeds to good effect. We wanted to know more, and so we asked!

Dye Garden:  Welcome Linda, and thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions about your life, work, and involvement with the garden. Many of us had formative childhood experiences that informed our love of craft. Where did you grow up, and how did the environments you encountered influence your art?

Linda Lugenbill (photo by Vicki Phillips)
Linda Lugenbill with one of her lovely gathering baskets.

Linda:  I was raised in Rochester, PA, a very rural town northwest of Pittsburgh, and was fortunate to grow up in a home built by my parents on property that had previously been part of my grandparents’ farm. My earliest memories are of times spent running freely outdoors or of tagging alongside my grandparents as they tended to the many tasks needing attention. I firmly believe that one learns by doing, but I also believe one can learn by watching. I absorbed so much from hanging around my grandparents! I attended Thiel College in Greenville, PA and the University of Pittsburgh, having majored in biology and physical therapy — so plants and working with my hands have been a part of my make up from my earliest years.

My husband and I met in college. He was drafted and entered the Army. Thirteen moves and 24 years later, what we had expected to be a 4-year commitment had become a military career. Life as a military family presented challenges and opportunities I could not have imagined. One learns to adapt quickly and take advantage of the circumstances presented. Our last military move brought us to Colorado Springs where we have lived for almost 25 years. Time flies when you are busy and involved!

Dye Garden: Were you a child who liked to make things? Were there adults who modeled a love of craft?

linda basket cochineal weld
Reeds dyed in cochineal and weld.

Linda:  My youth was spent helping my father with his woodworking projects. He was a master at carpentry but this was not how I wanted to be spending my time.  Looking back, I realize these sessions were the beginnings of my love of wood, sticks, and all things strange like knots, grain, and burls. I was unknowingly gaining an understanding of construction and of tool-handling skills. Several years ago, I worked at defining and describing my personal approach to basketmaking. I finally realized that the common thread in my one-of-a-kind sculptural ribbed pieces is my approach. I “build” baskets. First I establish a frame and then fill it in with weaving. It is that simple! This allows me to consider creating all sorts of shapes and sizes of vessels while incorporating a wide range of natural elements that I have collected on my journey. These skills and perspectives allow me to adapt the many materials and objects I collect, and find an appropriate place for them in my work.
My mother worked for the phone company for 45 years. She had always been a fine seamstress and enjoyed all sorts of handwork. In her “spare” time she did tailoring for local dress shops.  She believed in clothes fitting properly,  in very fine, neat hand stitching , and in finishing the sewing project with a lot more ironing than I ever thought necessary! So … life has a way of negatively influencing us. My friends know that I routinely joke that I am not your typical ‘needle and thread’ fiber enthusiast! In my basketry, I have adapted sewing needs using larger scale plant materials — never fine or neat!  My way of adapting once again.

Upon reflection I have fond memories of my 4th grade teacher, Ida Mae Fisher. Somehow she saw in me a focused student and one with a creative side and would design very involved art projects that I could work on while my classmates were finishing their assignments.

linda basket
Fallow Antler Basket, rib construction, natural dyes.

Dye Garden: Your basket designs combine beauty and functionality, and the range of material you incorporate is decidedly impressive! You mentioned the connection to your father’s woodworking, but how did you become interested in basket making?

Linda:  During an assignment to Fort Leavenworth, KS, when all 3 of our sons were finally in school, I enrolled in a 6-week basketry class. This was the start of my basketmaking journey. Soon after, my family moved to Virginia and, while awaiting the delivery of our household goods, I read about a basketmaker doing a demo at a nearby park. At this point I did not know there was an entire diverse world of basketry out there. I only knew how to make 6 specific baskets by following the pattern provided.  The woman doing the demo that day featured some naturals in her pieces but the best surprise of all was what she carried her tools in — a stunningly gorgeous white oat egg basket! This was a ribbed basket made from white oak.  I soon learned that she had taken a week-long class from a 4th generation white oak basketmaker in Tennessee.  I did not even have furniture in my new home and did have 3 young sons, but that did not stop me from brainstorming how I would be able to take this workshop. Ultimately, I made enough cheap, little, cute baskets that holiday season to not only pay for my workshop but for my family to accompany me on a camping trip to Tennessee! I was able to work with Estel Youngblood, who not only became my mentor but my good friend. He shared his family’s basketmaking tradition with me — a great honor and responsibility. This relationship was the start of my learning how to gather, process, and incorporate plant materials that could be used in basket projects.

Linda basket 30002
Stick Handle Contemporary Basket, rib construction, natural dyes, walnut handle.

I greatly value the traditions of basketry around the world, but am mostly impressed and influenced by those anonymous basketmakers who preceded me. These earlier craftsmen garnered little respect, and even less compensation, but have shared their traditions to the benefit of people like myself. To this day I think the Appalachian white oak basketry traditions and white oak as a material, are my favorites. Most likely due to the individual basketmakers who mentored me with kindness, patience, and support.

As a military family with numerous moves, I had exposure to new traditions and unique materials. I would often leave a successful teaching and selling business to relocate and begin all over. So I adapted. I decided to seek out basketmakers and materials with each move, learning what I could to add to my foundations of skills and knowledge. I also documented my discoveries, as I realized few of  my basketry colleagues would ever have such opportunities. This was the start of writing and speaking on the subject. Living several years in Germany and The Netherlands, I became acquainted with the German Federal Trade School for basketmakers. This is a 4-year trade school that prepares one to become an apprentice basketmaker. Four or more years later one might complete the requirements to become a master basketmaker. My association with this trade school, and relationship with the masters who taught there, reinforced my belief in the value of having a sound foundation of skills and understanding in a trade. These foundations allowed me to explore more artistic ways to highlight basketry and basketmakers.

Linda basket 4
Random weave sphere, datu rattan and indigo dyed reed.

Dye Garden:  You’ve certainly found and made the most of opportunities, which could not have been easy with young children and frequent moves. You’ve become a respected teacher of basketry. Would you speak more about where you’ve taught and exhibited?

Linda:  I’ve taught wherever I found myself living —  after I had several years and hundreds of baskets under my belt. Teaching provided me a platform to share stories about the tradition. Teaching locally in shops or for guilds soon catapulted to teaching at regional and national conferences and conventions.

Linda, harvesting coreopsis, while her garden folly looks on.

As mentioned earlier, I learned to adapt to my surroundings and to create opportunities — part of this is my upbringing, part is due to being a military family member. Upon moving to Colorado Springs, I visited the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where a project to analyze and catalog their collection of Native American baskets was starting up. So began my weekly trek to Denver to volunteer. This was similar to going to graduate school as a basketmaker. I was honored to be able to have a voice as/for a basketmaker on this project and was eventually hired to complete the conservation analysis on all of these pieces.  None of this would have happened had I not first opted to volunteer.

My basketry has been  selected for exhibition across the country and in Europe. I have several pieces in collections at the Nicolaysen Museum in Casper, WY, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and in Germany and England to name a few locations. I must admit that I am honored by these purchases but I prefer the purchases by individuals with whom I have been able to personally relate stories of basketmakers and basketry traditions.

Dye Garden: You’re usually among the first to arrive and last to leave on dye garden work days and — particularly as most of us are weavers, spinners, knitters, crocheters or seamstresses — we’re always fascinated when you bring reeds to dye. How did your involvement in the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden take off?

linda gathering basket
Gathering basket and naturally dyed cotton.

Linda: Upon first learning of the possibility of a partnership between the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild and Denver Botanic Gardens to create a memorial dye garden, I knew this was something I wanted to contribute to. Settling in Colorado Springs I completed the Colorado State University Master Gardener Program so that I could more successfully garden in this setting. I also love recycling parts of my garden into my basketry, and color has always played a major role in my work. Being able to have input into the garden project’s development early on appealed greatly to me. I wanted to learn as much as I could about dye plants — from growing to harvesting, to creating dye baths and coloring potential basketry materials. I also strongly appreciated that this dye garden, as a memorial to Janice Ford, was also an attempt to impress garden visitors young and old while sharing the many stories we, as fiber enthusiasts, have.

The dye garden has provided me with opportunities to explore new colors on my materials and to refine the most successful methods to achieve those colors on my fibers of choice. The greatest benefit I have derived from participating in the dye garden project comes from getting to know guild members and botanic garden staff. We all come from different backgrounds with different experiences, but we come together and combine efforts and energies to make things happen. My colleagues have been extremely supportive of my specialized interests. Their encouragement and support make me very proud to be part of this group.

Linda dye garden
Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden

Dye Garden:  And the future? What do you envision for the dye garden?

Linda: Anything great is possible. For now, just gearing up for the 2017 growing season is exciting. I see us interfacing with the public visitors on behalf of Denver Botanic Gardens and the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild as we participate in more public events. I look forward to gaining more knowledge and expertise as we grow, harvest, and process old standby dye plants and experiment with new varieties. Then there is the world of color mixing that we can dip in and out of.  I think there are possibilities for some in-depth study and experimentation with publications and photos to follow. I look forward to being able to harvest from select plants that might be grown in other parts of the botanic gardens at York Street and Chatfield Farms … maybe zinnias and snapdragons!

Dye Garden: Snapdragons! We should add those to our repertoire just because.
Linda, thanks for sharing a bit of your life with us!

Linda Lugenbill will be teaching a 3-day workshop on ribbed antler basketry later this month at the Intermountain Weavers Conference in Fort Lewis, Colorado. For more information, click here.


Author: Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden

The Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden is a joint project of the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Rocky Mountain Weavers Guild, established by a donation from the family of Janice Ford. Janice was an enthusiastic and energetic dyer, weaver, and seamstress who passed away too young in 2011. The garden has been flourishing since 2014, enriching and coloring the lives of visitors, artists in many media, and especially those whose privilege it is to tend it. The garden is located at Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms. http://www.botanicgardens.org/chatfield-farms/janice-ford-memorial-dye-garden From June to September, we are there most Thursdays, 9-12, to weed, harvest and dye. Visitors are welcome to stop by to see what we're up to!. Admission is free to Denver Botanic Garden members, with a $5.00 fee/car for non-members.

6 thoughts on “A Chat with Linda Lugenbill, Basketmaker and Dye Gardener”

  1. Working early mornings with Linda in the Dye Garden has been a pleasure. Linda is a very giving person. Have learned many things about Dye garden working with her. Article was very informative.


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