When John Shea finally retired from a career in engineering and made the move from being a part-time to a full-time resident of Martinsville in July of 1999, he knew that gardening and his interest in local conservation efforts would supply him with plenty of outdoor activity from spring through autumn. The question was, what, besides his lifelong interest in politics, would keep him happily occupied during the winter months?
“I wanted something to do with my hands,” explains Shea, adding, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop!”
A friend gave him a book about Nantucket Lightship baskets and Shea’s problem was solved. “I liked the look of them—but there was also an aspect of romance to it.”
Shea says he loved thinking of the Nantucket men who spent months isolated on the lightships that started being anchored off the treacherous shoals about 19 miles south of the island in the mid-19th century. Although, given the area’s strong currents and often violent seas, keeping the ships afloat and well maintained was a difficult and often hazardous job, the crew also had a great deal of free time. Until about 1892, most of them filled those long hours with basket-making, a craft that Nantucketers had been developing since the later 18th century.
“I served in the Navy during World War II,” Shea says. “I could relate to the many months spent at sea and needing something to do when off duty.”
Shea credits another book, Lightship Baskets of Nantucket by Martha R. Lawrence (Schiffer Publishing), with teaching him the meticulous, many-step process involved in making these baskets. “I don’t harvest my own materials or make my own molds—that is way beyond me,” he notes, so he buys his supplies from a company specializing in Nantucket baskets based outside of New Bedford, Mass.
As with most every culture and community needing containers for a diversity of uses, the baskets the Nantucket makers produced ranged widely in size and shape. But the type of Nantucket basket that is now perhaps the best known is one introduced in about 1948 by José Reyes, a man born in the Philippines whose life’s journey surprisingly led him to settle on Nantucket with his wife after World War II. Not long after arriving on the island he became involved in making baskets in the Nantucket style. Reyes’ big innovation was to add a lid so that his baskets could be used as ladies’ handbags. They soon became a bit of a fad—Queen Elizabeth II was presented one at her coronation in 1953.
“They say the Reyes purse is the PhD of Nantucket basket-making,” Shea says, pointing to the tricky engineering of the hinges, clasp, handles and lid that is involved. Many Nantucket purses were also decorated with intricate ivory scrimshaw designs, although it is now illegal to use ivory unless the piece is authenticated as antique.
Shea is now putting the finishing touches on a purse he started this past winter. He plans to donate it to the Jackson Memorial Library for a fundraiser raffle to be held sometime this coming season.
Shea has made about 60 baskets over the years, but he doesn’t sell them—even though they can fetch $80 an inch. Instead, he prefers to give them to family members and friends. “The more baskets I make the broker I get,” he laughs. “I’ve got five kids, so every time I make a new design everyone wants one.”
Shea is glad that people enjoy receiving his baskets, but the real satisfaction, he says, is in crafting them. “I’m not creating anything new,” he is quick to point out, “I’m just following the formula. But they are graceful. They have a simplistic beauty.”
Then, after a pause, he adds, “I only do this in wintertime. I find making them very peaceful.” —JW
PHOTOS: Julie Wortman