Ohio basket weaver follows approaches picked up worldwide


ROSEVILLE, Ohio (AP) — In recent years, Howard Peller has applied the simple principles he learned while in Haiti and Jamaica to his southeastern Ohio farm.

He worked among Haitian and Jamaican families and farmers from 2007 to 2012 as part of an international artisan-consulting program, living off the land as best he could by relying on naturally growing materials such as vines and bamboo.

He returned to Ohio in 2014 with a new perspective of the world.

“It was really a gift to share the skills I had and learn from other people,” said Peller, 60. ” It reinforced my understanding and appreciation of life and living, but I saw the simplicity and benefit of growing something and living locally, and I thought that had relevance.”

On his 140-acre property in Roseville, about an hour east of Columbus to the south of Zanesville, he puts what he knows to regular use.

The land, a heritage farm traced to 1796 whose buildings still feature the original construction, is registered as a historic site. It boasts 25 acres of flower and vegetable gardens confined by “fedges” (naturally grown living fences), eight beehives and a pond that Peller dug.

It also has willows — lots and lots of willows.

The plants, with 50 species represented, speckle the property off state Route 93 in Muskingum County.

Those recently harvested are shorn low; others extend tall and full.

By his estimate, Peller has upward of 6,000 willow plants on 2 acres that he harvests to hand-weave baskets — a trade he learned from 2012 to 2014 in Europe and one that, for the first time, he is showcasing at the Columbus Arts Festival.

“There aren’t a lot of basket-makers,” he said. “Living here in Appalachia; working with things that grow here and the materials that are here, like clay — we’re trying to share that idea of living and working locally and naturally.

“I hope it connects.”

The land to which Peller moved 20 years ago with his wife, Maddy Fraioli, lies in the heart of what was once a heavily mined area.

He doesn’t know whether his property was mined, although previous tenants surely took clay out of the ground.

In the 1900s, he said, the area was thoroughly farmed by prisoners.

“I don’t know what they did on the land, but it’s changed,” he said. “I’m trying to heal things that have been neglected.”

In the years since, Peller has planted thousands of trees and plants.

The land has been transformed into a sanctuary, with birds chirping and fluttering freely, bobcats roaming through the wetlands and berries growing in groves near the forest.

“Nature is just singing, and there’s just a healthy feeling here,” he said recently, stepping off the back porch of his studio into the warm sunlight.

Willow, a 3-year-old mix of a wolf and German shepherd, bounded around with her owner.

Meanwhile, in the distance, Eli — the second of the three Peller sons — tended the beehives and vegetables, the fruits of which he will take to farmers markets.

He has lived on the property with his wife, Alyssa Hawn, since the fall, after his discharge from the Army.

“I enjoy working with my hands and working outside,” the 27-year-old said — “just working the land and creating something and growing and giving life.”

‘The work … is authentic ‘

Peller, born in New York and raised in the Midwest, met Fraioli in Vermont.

His wife of 31 years has a studio on the property where she creates pottery, which is also featured at their festival booth.

From 1987, with the start of Fioriware Pottery, until its closing in 2006, they specialized in home products.

That history marks just one aspect of his impressive resume, which includes work as a teacher and a consultant, and upper-management stints in arts and design.

With an advanced degree, a master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Michigan, Peller has spent years honing his expertise and sharing the knowledge with other people.

He served as an assistant professor of design in the 1980s at both St. Thomas Aquinas College in New York and Truman State University in Missouri, and later an adjunct professor in photography and ceramics at Muskingum University in New Concord and the Zanesville campus of Ohio University. He also worked as a consultant, then a vice president of design, through 2007 for the Longaberger Co.

Although he still consults for various companies, his passion focuses on willow baskets — whose weaving he learned in Denmark, France and Italy.

He employs the traditional European techniques in his creations.

“The work Howard is making is authentic, working within a tradition,” Fraioli said. “It is about form and texture and technique.”

The willows grow year-round.

Peller uses an ancient method called coppicing to harvest the plant during the winter in such a way that its growth is continually stimulated.

From there, he sorts, bundles and racks it to dry for two years in his barn.

The aging process strengthens the fibers for eventual basket-making.

“It’s an enormously interesting plant,” said Peller, delving into the history of how Native Americans used willow bark as a painkiller and how Europeans used it as a growth hormone.

For his purposes, the sturdy branches allow him to fashion baskets, bird feeders, shoulder totes and other items to sell online.

The floral, incense-like scent of willow permeates his studio, where he spends hours a day molding willow sticks amid baskets stacked high around him.

Willow the dog, ever by his side, rested in a bed under a table as Peller set up his workstation. The weaver sat on a beaver pelt from an animal he had trapped in a water bed on his land and began to lay out his tools.

On a small table in front of him, he set a bulb-shaped willow structure weighted by a stone in the middle and held at the top by a circular beef leg bone and an antler — the skeleton of what he would form into a bowl-shaped basket.

A ticking clock from Germany that no longer keeps time broke the silence as he started his work.

“It’s very meditative” — and all about the thumbs, he said as he methodically wove strands of willow through one another.

“You’re very much in the present when you’re doing this.”

Soon, he moved outside to his rocking chair — where he was afforded a scenic view of his gardens against the backdrop of a forest and meadow, with everything enveloped in the light of a warm, sunny day.

“The most pleasant way is to be outside and listen to the birds and weave,” he said as he continued working, his pooch resting near his feet.

Peller and Fraioli see their pursuits as a way to honor the Appalachian history of the region, rich in the traditions of ceramics and basket weaving.

More important, their mission involves one of environmental stewardship.

“There’s another way to live our lives,” he said. “We’re living a lot more modestly and simply.”

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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