Baskets are not usually considered “art.” They are made by regular people for practical purposes. But sometimes there’s an artist working in a traditional medium that is so innovative and original that the quotidian is surpassed and voila! There’s a fucking sculpture that happens to be made out of willow fiber. Dat So La Lee (real name Louisa Keyser) was so skilled and so creative she made baskets that belong in museums, that are unquestionably art, and that are ridiculously beautiful.
We aren’t exactly sure when Louisa Keyser was born, but it may have been around 1829 in Nevada. As a member of the Washoe tribe, she learned the art of basket weaving as a young girl. Baskets were essential to life in the Great Basin: they were used to store food and drink, in cooking, to separate seeds from their chaff, to carry babies, and in ceremonies. But they were not just practical items, they were aesthetic as well. And Keyser made the most fucking aesthetic baskets there are.
Keyser made a living doing domestic work and in 1895 she was working as a laundress for Abram and Amy Cohn. Abram (or Abe) saw her baskets and was so impressed he offered to sell them in his clothing store. The Cohns wanted exclusivity as her art dealers and offered in exchange food, lodging, and medical care as needed. Over the next 30 years they documented all of her work and managed her artistic career. While the Cohns did make sure Keyser was cared for, comfortable, and able to practice her art, they were also big fat liars and prone to hyperbole. They decided the baskets would sell better if Keyser had a more Native-American-y sounding name and changed her name to Dat So La Lee. The name has no meaning and was purely a marketing stunt. Much of what they say in their records is untrue, but we do know that Keyser made an estimated 300 baskets in her lifetime. Nevada bought 20 of her baskets in 1945 and sent half to the Historical Society and half to the State Museum. Four of those baskets were stolen in 1979 and took 20 years to be recovered. Keyser’s baskets were included in the “Tahoe: a Visual History” exhibit at the Nevada Museum of Art in 2015 and are part of the Smithsonian’s collection. Keyser died in 1925 in Carson City, Nevada, after a four-day death ritual performed by a medicine man. Her grave reads:
Dat So La Lee
There is a historic marker nearby commemorating her.
But what was so cool about her baskets and how did she make them? The three primary materials were willow, bracken fern, and red bush. All three are native to the Washoe lands. The bracken fern was dyed in the mud to get a deep black color. The willow was taken from under the bark and cut to a thickness of 1/33 of an inch or less. Keyser would begin a basket with three willow rods and then weave in willow twigs, bracken fern, and red bush. On the surface of the basket, there are about 35 stitches per inch; a large completed basket has over 50,000 stitches. No wonder it could take a year to create one piece. The style Keyser used and made her own was called degikup. Degikup baskets were round and watertight. Keyser created a shape that was flat on the bottom, flared out, came back in, and had a hole on top the same size as the bottom. A few of her baskets flared out and did not come back in, creating a wide mouth at the top, but these are rare. Keyser did not read, write, or sketch and all the designs and patterns were done in her head. She took a traditional craft and transformed it into art and that makes Louisa Keyser, aka Dat So La Lee, pretty fucking awesome.