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F-O-K Studios Featured Artist: Martha Bird and Her Woven Willow Sculptures

December 18, 2023
Martha Bird Artist
Martha Bird
Photo by: Emily Donovan

Meet Martha Bird

Martha Bird, an accomplished interdisciplinary artist living in Minneapolis, has been with F-O-K Studios at Farwell on Water since November 1, 2023. She honed her expertise in the craft of traditional basketry and is now vested in pushing the traditions of the technique into new forms and spaces through her artistic practice. Offering a window into Martha Bird’s artistic universe, this Q&A provides a deeper appreciation of the compelling narratives that fuel her passion for woven willow sculptures. She shares profound insights into her artistic inspirations, innovative processes, and the connection between her work and the world that surrounds her.

What themes or subjects do you commonly explore in your work?

My work explores the human body, manifestations of trauma, and concepts of resilience, energy, and growth. I’m inspired to use natural fibers as a path to explore the interplay of interior and exterior space, imperfection, and presence. I see my work as memoir. The meaning becomes clear when I am done and looking at the pieces in the context of each other. 

Martha Bird Art

How did you start your journey as an artist?

In 1994, depressed and on bedrest from a disabling injury, I took a class in basketweaving and found it profoundly rehabilitating. As my health improved, I got really excited about the medium and dove into taking classes and exploring all the various weaves. I started attending an art studio program in Minneapolis several years later and because of my regular attendance, I was awarded my first solo exhibition. The community response was overwhelmingly positive, and from there I decided to continue creating and showing art.

What or who are your biggest influences?

Foundational basketry techniques are my starting point in creating conceptual sculptures that challenge the utilitarian form. Basketry is an artistic medium traditionally passed down from artisan to artisan, and to that end, nationally and internationally known basketmakers have taught and influenced me, including Pat Hickman, Jo Campbell-Amsler, and Patrick Dougherty. I also spent a month studying extensively with traditional Irish basketmakers in Ireland. 

Martha Bird with Patrick Dougherty (left)

Can you share a defining moment in your artistic career?

I expanded my work nationally when the former founder/curator of a Smithsonian gallery, Lloyd Herman, chose my very first sculptural basket to tour the US for a year with the National Basketry Organization. A mentor told me that part of being an artist is growing a thick skin to tolerate rejection when applying for opportunities. I entered this call thinking just that — a start to hearing ‘no’s — but I was utterly shocked when I was accepted into the exhibition. From there on I had confidence to pursue a career as an artist specializing in sculptural basketry.

“I am an artist, a nurse, and a truthteller. The artist in me wants to express; the nurse in me wants to encourage healing; and the truthteller wants to put form to difficult universal truths.”

-Martha Bird

What do you love about working within the Farwell on Water community?

I love that there are so many other artists creating in the building and I can hear the buzz of other artists working, while I too am working. I love that it is part of the St. Paul Art Crawl.

How has the studio space contributed to your work?

This studio is my first solo artist space and I’m excited to see how this influences my artwork.

Do you have any upcoming shows or exhibitions?

My work can be found on, a bus stop at Franklin Ave & Chicago Ave in Minneapolis, and in an exhibition at Form + Content Gallery in Minneapolis from April 11 – May 18, 2024.

What are your aspirations for the next year as an artist?

I’m looking forward to establishing my art practice and routine at F-O-K Studios, joining in on an art crawl for the first time (St. Paul Art Crawl), and having the focus to start innovating my work in the studio.

Long-term art goals are to exhibit in the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and for this to lead to exhibiting my spiral sculptures in the Guggenheim in NYC, a spiral-ramped building topped by a large skylight.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I particularly love working with willow. The process of creating art with this material is complex. It literally takes a year to prepare the materials. I grow and harvest my own willow — six different varieties (colors) each growing to between 6-10 feet tall. I harvest in the winter when it’s dormant and then dry it for a year to prevent shrinkage when I work with it. Then when I’m ready to weave, I soak the rods in a really long soaking tank — 12 feet by 12 inches — for 6-10 days. From there I wrap it in a bed sheet for 24 hours to facilitate further water absorption through a process called “mellowing.” Finally I can then begin the weaving process. The tricky part is that I have to use the soaked willow within a week, as it starts drying right away and cannot be used after drying this second time. Most people don’t realize what goes into making just one sculpture.

See more of Martha’s work on her website
Or Instagram @marthabirdart

Better yet, stop in and visit Martha in her studio during First Fridays and the St. Paul Art Crawl (April and October).

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