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Rural Missouri Magazine

Weaving with Wire
Artist creates unusual baskets with other people's castoffs

by Jim McCarty

Making unusual baskets from recycled wire brings great joy to West Plains artist Kitty Chrysalis.

Taking a walk one day, Kitty Chrysalis spots a discarded piece of copper wire on the ground. “Love it!” she says, excitement apparent in her voice. “I’ll take that home.”

To most people that little scrap of wire is just so much debris, another cast-off remnant of a wasteful society. To Kitty it’s a treasure, destined to be a work of art when her mind’s eye finds a use for it — and the barn full of other wire scraps she has accumulated.

“Electricians just love me because I get so excited,” says Kitty, a member of Howell-Oregon Electric Cooperative. “If I wasn’t taking their scraps they would get burned off and the toxins would go in the air. I don’t like that.”

What Kitty does with the wire is unusual. Once she trained to make traditional baskets. Today she makes baskets using wire. Sometimes the wire is bare copper, sometimes aluminum. Sometimes the muse seizes her and she creates colorful works of art using the tiny wire inside telephone cables.

Bob Patrick, an artist who was once her neighbor in the community of Moody, taught her to make baskets in 1976. He recalls that she was a good student but her work lacked originality.

“She soon did a better job than I did on her baskets,” he says. “But she was rigid in her work. Everything was very symmetrical and tight, very controlled.”

His advice: Make work that is intentionally asymmetrical. That’s exactly what she did. In fact she calls one art form her “scribble baskets.” She says these free-form containers hearken to the time before children are taught to color in the lines.

Kitty never made the traditional split oak baskets so common in her part of the Missouri Ozarks, just a stone’s throw from the Arkansas line. Those early efforts used honeysuckle vines which grew wild on her 7 acres south of West Plains.

Soon she was experimenting with other materials. At the dump she found scrap leather from a shoe factory and experimented with it. She tried yarn, sea grass, cattails. Then she tried dyeing stiff paper and weaving it like others would oak strips. She used different techniques, but finally came to what she calls a resting point. “There were several years when I didn’t weave.”

At this time she inherited a pile of scrap wire from a friend. One day while mowing around the pile she had an epiphany. Why not weave wire?

Kitty’s dad gave her a piece of telephone cable. Inside she found hundreds of tiny, brightly colored pieces of wire. Her work took on new meaning as she quickly discovered the potential of the new material.

Unlike the organic forms she used before, the wire kept its shape. She discovered new textures, new techniques to deal with the stiff material and endless possibilities from combining bare copper with plastic coated phone wire or adding tiny glass beads.

“I never knew what medium I would settle on,” Kitty recalls. “It’s just like true love — it just happens now and then.”

Before long, friends began bringing her bags of wire. Sometimes she leaves her day job at the West Plains hospital and finds new offerings sitting on her car hood. She never turns down a piece of wire, knowing eventually she will find a use for it.

Even though she uses unconventional material, the techniques are the same ones traditional basketmakers use. What makes her baskets even more unusual is that Kitty combines many basketmaking techniques into the same piece.

For example, a basket might start with traditional coil construction, then branch out into twining for an open look. From time to time Kitty must invent new techniques to deal with the medium she has discovered.

She has a small anvil that lets her flatten wire ends, or shape them into free-form scrolls. Often, these little touches become the focal point of a piece.

Kitty only does three or four major pieces a year. She prefers to design her art for individuals rather than make them and wait for a buyer. She starts by asking a lot of questions, like what does the person enjoy doing, what’s important to them. She asks for small items that are meaningful to the person and incorporates them into the basket.

Once a cardiologist brought Kitty a bag of wire he took from his childhood train set. Kitty wove it into a marble run using blue and red wire. Look at it closely and you will find the semblance of a human heart, with four chambers.

Another piece is a dragon that began with a turkey bone a friend gave Kitty, challenging her to find a use for it.

Her work has a certain natural flow. Kitty says this helps her express community, friendship and environmental awareness, themes that are important to her.

“There seems to be a certain amount of cosmic serendipity going on here,” Kitty says of her work. “I seem to get to the end of the wire about where I need to. Sometimes there is no trimming at all.” Kitty says she doesn’t want to generate any waste.

Kitty creates her baskets because of the joy they provide. “I have been given a gift to make objects that are beautiful and unusual, and I feel honored to bring them into the world. They are my attempt to turn refuse into something of beauty. I hope that my baskets bring as much joy to others as their creation has provided me.”

You can contact Kitty at (417) 284-7483 or 4204 State Rt. 142, West Plains, MO 65775.

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