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Honoring Clara Keezer, Passamaquoddy basketmaker (1930-2016)

ON August 2, 2016 Clara Neptune Keezer passed away, she will be greatly missed

The first featured artist of this website was Passamaquoddy basketmaker, Clara Neptune Keezer. She made her first basket at the age of 8 in 1938. Born on at Sipayik, (Pleasant Point) Passamaquoddy Reservation in Northeastern Maine, where she resided until her passing. Her parents, grandparents and great grandparents made baskets, both utilitarian work baskets and fancy baskets.

During the 1950's Maine Indian basketmaking was a dying art, Clara helped to revitalize it both with her beautiful works and her teaching numerous relatives and friends the art. Her baskets are perfect, she combined several different design details and varying basket shapes to product a wide variety of baskets. She was chosen as one of Maine's first "Master Basketmakers". She was a charger member of the Maine Indian Basketmaker's Alliance. In 2002 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a National Heritage Fellowship. The NEA National Heritage Fellowships recognize the recipients' artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to our nation's traditional arts heritage. These are lifetime achievement awards and are given in support of the traditional arts. Other recipients over the years include bluesman B.B. King, Cajun fiddler and composer Michael Doucet, cowboy poet Wally McRae, and gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples.

Clara Neptune Keezer worked until her passing, always dedicated to producing lovely baskets and to teaching others in her community to do so as well. Her siblings, Angela Neptune Barnes (d), Theresa Neptune Gardner (d), Edith Neptune Pond and Peter Neptune have all been basketmakers. Clara's last apprentice was her niece Debra Nicholas, Clara taught her sons Rocky and Kenny to weave baskets and conducts basket classes in the local elementary school.

Her baskets are made of brown ash, the traditional basketry material of Maine and Eastern Canadian Indian basketmakers. Frequently Clara added tightly braided tidal sweetgrass to make various designs. Fruit and corn baskets were some of her most beloved styles, strawberry, lemon, blueberry and pineapple baskets as well as her corn baskets were favorites of many of her customers. Clara used designs from older baskets - sweetgrass loops and sweetgrass x's, curlicue curls and bow ribbon handles - but she used these with such flare that they became her own. Her spiral and twist designs are very different and distinctive. She generally put a sweetgrass braid between the inner and outer rim of the basket, a practice unique to her.

Before she passed, I had spoken with Clara about using the photos above for this article. It was 6 winters ago on a cold day after a particularly vicious wind storm. Clara's electricity was out, she said her home was getting quite chilly and yet she was there making a basket. The photo of Clara standing beside a large photo of herself was taken that year. The black and white photo was featured in an exhibit of her work in Eastport, Maine - near her home. The montage photos were taken in 2002. In the montage, I particularly like the ones showing Clara working and showing Clara teaching basketry to a group of children.

It has been my pleasure to have known Clara Keezer and to have had her as my friend for over 20 years. You can see the quality and beauty of her work, what you can not see is how powerful her influence has been on Maine Indian basketry. Her quiet nature belied the immense dedication to her art and her efforts to preserve it by teaching others.