In an unassuming artist's studio behind a small house in Huntsville, Leon Niehues works on the craft he has honed since 1981 when he and his wife sold their first handmade baskets at the War Eagle Craft Fair. The studio is a reflection of its owner: Niehues is a highly respected, internationally known artist, but he, like his studio, puts on no airs. The space is modest but comfortable, with a lived-in couch in the corner. Niehues' supplies are spread everywhere because the artist is always working.
He creates the baskets on his own now. Sharon Niehues, his wife, moved on to handmade soaps, which the couple sells at the Fayetteville Farmer's Market. His handiwork covers most of the flat surfaces in the studio, baskets in various stages of completion, as he routinely works on more than one at a time.
Through Others’ Eyes
“For a long time, he didn’t use anything that was purchased, for the most part. Maybe he was using some kind of iron stuff for dyes, but, for the most part, it was completely authentic. He would take a tree and turn it into a basket with hand tools. I think that’s one of the things that has always been so appealing — it’s just so real. It’s not someone taking commercial components and saying, ‘look what I created.’ It’s someone taking things from the woods and making something that is useful and also has a modern feel to it.” — Matt Niehues
“People from arts and crafts circles all over the country know him. He’s very well known and well known as one of the best in this country. But yet he’s modest and unassuming. I think it’s important that people see his work and appreciate it, because artists are often not appreciated on their own turf. ” — Julia “Judy” Norrell
A comparison of a photo from 30 years ago with his current work shows the evolution of Niehues' art from almost strictly functional to fantastically sculptural. But all of his work is timeless.
"These containers deceive the viewer," American Craft magazine said of Niehues' baskets. "They seem primitive and modern, functional and decorative, intricate and simple all at once."
Their design inspired Marlon Blackwell's architecture for the store at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where Niehues' work can be purchased.
An expanse of earth is basking in sunlight for the first time in decades in front of the Huntsville studio. Niehues recently lost a huge elm tree to disease. The tree -- a critical part of the canopy that kept this part of the yard in shade for so many years -- now lays chopped and stacked in small, neat piles that are dwindling as Niehues uses the wood to stoke the small stove that warms his studio. By spring, there will be nothing left of the elm.
A visitor expresses sympathy for the loss of the mighty shade tree.
"Oh, that's OK," says Niehues, gently. "Do you see there? The grass is starting to grow because this part of the ground is finally getting some sun."
He practices this kind of synergistic relationship with wilderness: He carefully tends the 40-acre property he owns near Pettigrew and, in turn, harvests all of the white oak for his creations from those woods.
The Pettigrew property is where the Niehueses moved when they struck out to find their own parcel of land during the "back to the land movement" in the 1970s. The couple and their infant daughter had moved from Topeka, Kan., where Niehues was born and raised.
"I'm one of the few back-to-the-landers who actually moved off of a working Kansas farm," he says.
He was one of six children who helped his parents tend to their rural farm. His graduating class held 13 people, and two of them were his twin brother and his cousin.
"So I graduated with only ten people who weren't related to me," Niehues says.
He moved on to bigger classes at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, but left after two years. He says he didn't really have a clear direction at the time. Although he felt a pull toward the art department -- where his sister was a printmaking major -- Niehues says it never occurred to him that being an artist could be a job.
"I didn't know that it was actually a career. I'm not sure I would have pursued making a living as an artist if I had studied it in college."
He struck out for adventure and headed west after college, a small town boy in California, where he spent some time in San Francisco and Modesto. He then spent a summer working in a cafeteria in Yellowstone National Park, before he felt the tug to head back home to Kansas. Friends introduced Niehues to Sharon. The two married, started their family and looked for an adventure they could share.
They landed in Madison County where Niehues took a job at a sawmill -- those were the only kinds of jobs to be found in Madison County, he says, wryly -- that surprised him by being quite enjoyable.
"I worked on a crew of about ten to twelve guys," he remembers. "The people I worked with were really interesting, because they were everything from old timers to true hippies. And they all worked on a crew pretty good together. It was pretty unique. Great mix of young and old and city kids and guys who just grew up three miles away."
Still, says Niehues, "It wasn't a job that was supposed to lead to something else. This wasn't exactly a career choice."
What happened next made the difference between the world knowing Niehues, the artist, rather than Niehues, the sawmill worker. A man who had never considered practicing art as a livelihood came across something that would change his life.
"What really helped me was a small booklet put out by the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Arkansas," he says. "It was sort of a rough step-by-step on how to make a basket from a tree. It was about five or six pages. It shows a man starting with a tree, with just a few photographs. It gave me the idea."
The Niehueses whipped up 11 handmade baskets using this simple explanation and materials from the woods surrounding their home and took them to the War Eagle Craft Fair. They sold out. They had the same result when they returned to War Eagle in the fall.
Niehues quit his job at the sawmill and started making baskets full time.
"I really gave it everything I had at that point," he says. "The first couple of years were pretty frustrating, because the first requirement for making baskets from your woods is your materials. You have to have something to work with. And that was a long time figuring out what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. And it really was several years. And so it made each basket seem kind of a big effort, and I was limited by my materials because they weren't always good enough for what I wanted to work with. I don't know when it kicked in, but I was developing my own method of doing it, and that method and the way I work allows me to do decorative work."
"His work was totally new to me," says art collector Julia "Judy" Norrell, originally from Monticello and now a resident of the Washington, D.C. area. She first saw Niehues' work at the Smithsonian Craft Show ten years ago and has since become one of his bigger collectors.
"I think I'm a 'gut collector.' I buy what I like, if I can, and then later learn a great deal more about the technique or the medium. I was drawn to the fact that he had great variety in his work -- they're not all traditional baskets, as I understood the meaning. He's a very gentle man and quite intellectual, yet patient in his description of the painstaking process he uses in his creation, from getting the wood all the way through the finished project.
"His technique, I realized, was beyond my intellectual understanding of baskets, but it was perfect enough that I thought I needed to have these. I needed to learn more about his work," she said.
Niehues seems to like talking about the process, and he demonstrates what he's describing when he can, turning his instruments over in his hands to show how they work. Many of his instruments are handmade because the craft that he does is so esoteric, mass marketed tools are nowhere to be found.
The explanation veers into the technical, difficult for a layperson to fully comprehend. His baskets and sculptures, deceptively simple in appearance, are products of days of complicated, time consuming work that starts when Niehues takes a quiet walk in his woods, searching for the appropriate white oak tree.
He doesn't use anything else. The long, willowy strands he calls "fine little weavers" -- the pieces that he will weave in and out of the ribs of the basket -- are derived when he harvests the wood from individual growth rings, painstakingly separating the years of each tree's life, layer by layer. The result is a long strip of what appears to be fiber instead of wood, as flexible as a ribbon.
He has often shown his baskets in the fiber category, Niehues says. He used to think collectors should see him as wood, because he only uses wood, but they never did. And now he thinks, 'It's OK. I don't mind, because I think of wood as fiber.'"
Color variation in the wood is achieved by soaking the strips in a homemade solution of walnut hulls for one or two days; heating speeds up the process. If he wants the wood even darker, he soaks it in another solution of water and ferrous sulfate afterward. Minerals in his well water will suffice for just a slight darkening.
His work results from 36 years of trial and error and creative experimentation. For example, the slight forward lean to many of his baskets, which has become a kind of trademark, was an accident at first.
"When you notice what is happening, you might make a conscious effort to work with that. You can consciously make more choices," he says. "For instance, the volume coming up to a small neck. Leaning forward is suggestive of a personality. Suggestive of almost like something living, where you look at it, and it actually can look back at you. You can really start playing with it."
The idea of baskets (or, in his latter work, sculptures) with human-like features is emphasized in a lot of the terms Niehues uses to describe the parts of his art: rib, neck, skin.
The work is painstaking and tiring, hard on the hands, hard on the back. He spent long hours in the studio for many years producing work for the craft and art show circuit. He found a way to still spend time with his family, which now included two sons in addition to his daughter.
"I said, 'If this is what I'm doing, this is what you're doing,'" he recalls, smiling.
It's obvious in the telling that that time with family is particularly meaningful to him.
"For my two sons, this is what they would do after school and on weekends -- they were in the studio with me. We always got along really well, and I could be more productive. I would set things up, and they would do all the sanding and the stitching.
"They would sit there, right beside me. And we would listen to NPR, or we would listen to old rock and roll music, and we would visit. When my youngest son was younger, he would read to us while we worked. So we found a lot of ways to be together, even if I worked in the studio. And that lasted a long time, really."
"He paid us for it," says eldest son Matt, 40, with a laugh. "That's a big motivator for kids. But I've never minded working. To this day, I like to work. I think I got that from him.
"I would like to do the same thing with my kids," he continues. "If I was giving advice to other parents about how to get close to their kids, I would definitely say, 'Try and work with them,' because, one, it's productive, and two, it's a really easy way to talk."
Niehues' successes started small, but accelerated. Having sold out at local art fairs, he was soon traveling to large urban shows in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Baltimore. He went to places that were juried and hard to get into -- like the Smithsonian show, one of the most highly sought after shows on the craft circuit. It offers 120 vendor slots to thousands of applicants nationwide.
Grants and fellowships started rolling to Niehues, including an Arkansas Arts Council Fellowship grant, a Mid-America Arts Alliance/NEA Fellowship Award, the Walter Gropius Master Artist award, the Arkansas Living Treasure Award, a United States Artists Fellowship and the James Renwick Alliance Distinguished Artist award. He was invited to participate in dozens of exhibitions at galleries across the country. Articles were written about him in Craft Arts International, American Craft magazine, the Detroit Free Press, Fiberarts magazine and the New York Times, the Times calling the couple's baskets "a witty affair" in an 1993 article.
Niehues eschews traveling to shows these days in favor of his studio. Crystal Bridges has given him more opportunities to meet with collectors of his work without having to travel, he says. The museum's store sells his work, but, for the most part, collectors are already aware of him before coming to the area.
"They know of me, and Crystal Bridges can't occupy two or three days of their time," he says."One of thing things that some of them might do is come to my studio. Studio visits are popular right now. I get more of them than I used to."
Niehues' studio is a stop on an art tour a company in Los Angeles puts together several times a year.
"Sometimes, they're whole bus tours, sometimes there are six people, sometimes two people," Niehaus says.
He suffers the usual complications of someone who does precise work with his hands and fingers, but he has discovered diversifying his activities helps. He takes time away from his work table to garden and helps Sharon Niehues with the soap-making business.
His work continues to evolve. He's added new elements like the jet black emery cloth, a contrast against the natural hue of the ribs of his pieces, that he uses as skin. Many of his newer pieces look more like sculptures than baskets. A hint of insecurity comes across when he talks about this evolution. He admits a hesitation to call himself an artist, despite the rest of the world's eagerness to do so for 30 years.
"I was starting to think of myself in some cases as 'mixed media', and I liked mixed media, because I think baskets aren't always exciting," he says. "I wouldn't want to just be making baskets 36 years later, and the only description of me is, 'Oh, he's making baskets. More, better baskets.' So I was thinking about mixed media, because, you know, I'm using different elements now."
Niehues says he started using the word sculpture about a year ago without having to explain it or put it in a category, which was freeing.
"Because then you can think of yourself as an artist. And the world thinks of you differently, too -- if they can say, 'I love his sculptures,' you're a different person than if they say, 'I love his baskets.' This spring, I got to participate in a sculpture show in New York, and it was one of the first times I was referred to as a sculptor. It was with a very avant-garde sculpture show. I was a little shy about it, but it certainly made me feel good to participate in it, and it sold well."
His success doesn't surprise Matt Niehues.
"I know the quality of the work he's doing. It's extremely high, so that makes me feel like the attention is due," he says. "I think, honestly, he doesn't have as much recognition as he could, because he's never been a salesman. He's never been interested in promoting himself."
Norrell describes Niehues as a family man.
"When he was younger, in fact, he gave me a photograph of himself with a very large basket, and his older son is in that picture. When you think about it, this is a man who has made a living and raised a family without ever becoming or seeking to become commercially successful, in the 'I'll do anything to get ahead' way.
"He has had a show in New York. He's done things beyond what he thought he would ever do, but he would no more sell his soul to sell a piece than fly to the moon. And that's a nonpolitical definition of 'family values,'" she says.
"He really is a treasure, right there in the midst of Arkansas."
NAN Profiles on 12/24/2017
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