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Willow basket

Mary Knight Benson (Pomo, 1878–1930) and William Benson (Pomo, 1862–1937), willow basket
Yokayo Rancheria, Mendocino County, California
Sedge, gray willow, bulrush
58 x 34 x 10 cm
Collected by Grace Nicholson
Purchased from Mrs. Thyra Maxwell

“I am Getting along Allright But One Thing I can not Forget That Is Mary, I Can See Her Face Ever Now and Then”
—William Benson, December 1, 1930

This elegant basket sits at the center of a complex web of relationships. Two of the world’s most gifted weavers—Mary Knight Benson and her husband, William Benson—created it for Grace Nicholson, a Pasadena-based dealer in American Indian art. For nearly thirty years, Nicholson provided the Bensons with a regular, modest stipend and assisted them during various adversities. This allowed William and Mary to devote much of their time to creating some of the finest baskets ever woven, and it provided Grace with a regular supply of superb material to sell.

In the early summer of 1930, William wrote Nicholson to tell her of Mary’s death, leaving this basket unfinished. Nicholson asked William to complete it, something virtually unthinkable. Among Pomoan communities at that time, the deceased’s personal possessions—particularly pieces of handiwork—were destroyed, a practice that embodied the family’s deep grief.

William Benson profoundly mourned Mary’s passing and he resisted Nicholson’s plea. But Nicholson learned about ethnographic work Benson was engaged in with linguist Jaime de Angulo. “Now other parties have had the benefit of your work,” she fumed, “…and I will not even be mentioned for all my work in the matter even though I have furnished the funds all these years to make it possible to preserve the legends, etc.” Primarily, I believe, to mend the rupture in their relationship, William Benson agreed to finish the basket Mary began. He sent it to Nicholson late in 1931, noting, “This is the Hardes[t] job… This is the Best I could do on it.” Only one more letter exists between him and Nicholson, written in 1932.

—Sherrie Smith-Ferri (Pomo), director, Grace Hudson Museum

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