Most of the day you’ll find Western Michigan University biology professor Sharon Gill teaching in the classroom. On other days, she’s in the field, collecting data on the behavior and songs of birds and other animals.
On still other days – she’s weaving baskets, not unlike the birds she studies weaving their intricate nests. Her baskets are not just utilitarian. They are works of art, woven into unusual and delicate shapes, constructed of natural materials as well as manmade materials like steel and copper wire.
“I started working on baskets as a way to see in three dimensions,” Gill says. “For many years, all I had was drawing. Then I started taking classes at Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in metal sculpting. I really enjoyed that—it was a different way to explore art and to see things in three dimensions, but I found that most of the things I was producing were two-dimensional. They were in some ways like drawing with metal. There was some wire hanging around in the studio, so I thought, well, I’ll try making some baskets.”
Gill had found a new fascination, opening her eyes to the three dimensions she sought in her art forms. She began studying basketry in all its forms and its history with roots in cultures across the world.
“There are certainly baskets that are ten-to twenty-thousand years old,” Gill says. “The baskets in a region are a reflection of the materials available, and that’s really interesting to me. It ties the people who make the basket to the places that they are and the materials that they had.”
Much as Gill had done when researching birds and other animal sounds in nature, she once again wandered into the field—this time searching for materials for her baskets. She uses grasses and other plants from her own garden or other areas along with the metal wiring, each basket taking shape under her hands in not only utilitarian but artistic form.
“One of the attractions of doing artwork is that it’s a different way of interacting with the world,” she says. “And as a scientist, we have one particular way through that training that we have as scientists to make observations and do experiments to understand nature in a particular way. But there are different ways of knowing about the natural world.”