At first glance, Stephen Zeh might seem like one contradiction after another.
Having once earned his living in the politically incorrect world of fur trapping, he now fashions a livelihood in the genteel realm of basket making. And while he makes his home in the hard-scrabble town of Temple (a place literally at the end of the road), he regularly visits the nation's biggest cities to sell his wares — priced at thousands of dollars each — to a sophisticated clientele of art collectors. So Zeh's designs must be the products of an extensive art school education, right? Well, no.Zeh's only teacher was a Penobscot Indian who instilled in him a practical appreciation of what will last a lifetime in a world where throwaway material goods are the norm.
"Sometimes people who think they want to make baskets for a living say, 'Yes, but what are your shortcuts?' " Zeh says with an amused look on his face. "I don't have any shortcuts, I tell them. You have to take what the tree gives you and go from there. There are no shortcuts if you want to make something that will last."
That remark sums up Zeh's singular approach to life. He has rarely taken the easy, well-trodden route toward success. Even as a youngster growing up in rural western Pennsylvania, he was a bit of a loner, always out hunting and fishing on his own when other boys were playing football or baseball. "No one else in my family was much interested in hunting and fishing," he admits. "It was just something I was born with, I guess."
But making baskets for a living was perhaps the furthest thing from Zeh's mind when he moved to Maine in 1971 to pursue life as a professional fur trapper. In an era when trapping was less controversial than it is today, Zeh took up residence in New Vineyard, a town just north of Farmington in the western Maine mountains. In his travels, he eventually met Tammy, now his wife of thirty years and an active participant in many phases of the basket-making business. Indeed, you could say that she was Stephen's first sales and promotion agent when he began making a few baskets, priced at five to ten dollars apiece, to sell at the farmers' market in Farmington.
"I actually started making baskets for myself, out of necessity," Zeh, 54, explains. In fact, his first effort was a pack basket, the forerunner of his signature design. To a fur trapper, a pack basket is preferable to a backpack for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the ease with which it can be washed out in a mountain stream. When he was trapping, the early pack baskets that Zeh bought for himself quickly fell apart with rough, daily use. "I was lucky if I got three months' use out them," he recalls.
Older, more experienced trappers told Zeh the problem was in the modern manufacturing processes and the materials used in his store-bought pack basket. They insisted pack baskets made by hand using traditional materials would survive a lifetime. So Zeh, being the ultimate do-it-yourselfer, started looking for someone who could teach him how to make such a pack basket. He found Eddie Newell, a local Penobscot Indian who was still making all sorts of baskets by hand, using traditional materials. "He was very generous and willing to teach me what I wanted to know," Zeh recalls.
What he learned was a highly labor-intensive approach to making baskets, a process that Zeh continues to use today on baskets that range in price from a small (nine inches by three inches by two inches) cracker basket at eight hundred dollars to a hefty swing-handle apple basket (fourteen inches in diameter by ten inches deep) for six thousand dollars. His trapper's pack basket now sells for $5,200, and a scaled-down purse based on the pack basket design goes for $3,850. Those prices may sound steep, but only if you ignore the uncounted hours involved in finding and cutting a tree and slowly transforming it into a finished product, ready for shipment to anywhere in the world. These days, Stephen and Tammy don't have a problem finding customers willing to pay top dollar; they're currently backed up with at least a year's worth of advance orders.
"My customers depend on me making a quality basket," Zeh explains. For making a top-of-the-line basket, there is no substitute for the time-honored wood of the brown ash tree. Unfortunately, brown ash trees tend to thrive in deep, dark swamps and along mountain stream borders. So the best trees are not easily found; nor are they easily recognizable as quality wood. "You never know what you're going to get in a brown ash log," says Zeh. "From the outside, it can look straight and true, but when you open it up, you find all kinds of problems."
Still, Zeh has spent many winter days wandering the woods near his nineteenth-century farmhouse, trekking on his own handmade snowshoes, looking for brown ash trees after the bogs and streams have frozen and the snow has piled up. Finding a good trunk and getting it back to his cavernous old barn is just the beginning, however.Us
ing a hand drawshave, he takes the bark off the log and then begins the tedious job of making splints, which are the long, thin fibrous ribbons of wood that define his baskets.
"That's the trouble with most manufactured baskets," Zeh says, pounding the side of a freshly debarked log. "They use veneers for splints, and that just won't last." He notes that even veneers shaved from brown ash don't last as long as traditionally obtained splints. That's because veneers are created by cutting across the annual growth rings of a tree, which weakens the resulting weaving material. Zeh's traditional method, although time consuming, keeps the individual growth rings intact.
Zeh falls silent as he continues to pound on the brown ash log, using the blunt side of the head of a heavy, single bit axe. Slowly, the log begins to yield to the pounding. Over a two-inch wide area, the growth rings begin to separate like a deck of cards. Zeh then pauses, grabs the four or five separating rings and peels them back a foot or so until they begin to resist. Then he begins to pound again. The process is repeated until the first splints are peeled from the entire length of the eight-foot log. Then Zeh starts over again, and again, and again, until the eight-inch thick log yields as many splints as Zeh can get out of it. In some logs, only a small percentage of the wood will yield usable splints.
In any case, splints are only one component of Zeh's baskets. There are handles to be made in a different, time-consuming manner. Hoops for rims require another approach. Handle hinges call for something else. Leather stitching and brass buckles demand still more skills. With some eighty steps to each basket, the more complex baskets can represent up to fifty hours of work, possibly more. But Zeh doesn't really keep track of time, either in his unheated barn or in the converted (and heated) chicken coop that is now his shop. "He just stays focused on what the next task is," Tammy says. "He is Mr. Focused."
Nor do the baskets' designs and shapes appear out of thin air. Zeh takes his artistic inspiration from numerous sources, including American Indian, Shaker, and other traditional early basket makers, the subtle nuances of which basket aficionados can discuss for hours. Weaving patterns, handle-attachment methods, hoop-bending particulars, and a host of other subtleties set Zeh's baskets apart in the eyes of collectors.
Zeh confines his own, dedicated sales efforts to the land east of the Mississippi. Annually, he and Tammy load baskets, logs, basket-making tools, and display cases into their truck and travel trailer for long trips to the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Street Art Fair, the American Craft Expo in Evanston, Illinois, the Baltimore Craft Show, and many others. "It's a bit of a grind during the summer," Zeh says of his travels. But when autumn arrives, the Zehs are glad to return to Maine and Temple.
It's true: Temple really is a dead-end town. The only road in, Route 43, officially ends in the village center, which has but one tiny store and a one-room post office. (Sure, the road continues on a few miles on the other side of town, but it turns from asphalt to dirt before becoming a woods track that disappears altogether amid mountain streams and dense alder thickets.) The Zehs live on the roadside edge of sixty acres, up a long steep hill in a slightly sheltered setting that helps protect their garden of fruits and vegetables. That garden and orchard has for years sustained the family through the winter, as well as providing produce for sale at the local farmers' market. Life in Temple tends toward the nostalgic. A milkman still delivers to the Zehs' front door. When their dog Hunter strays away from the farm, the mail carrier cheerfully gives him a ride back home. In a community like Temple, a man who makes baskets from scratch for a living seems to fit in quite naturally.
Zeh says he has no plans to retire. He's cut back on some of his summer travel in recent years, but he says he still enjoys the daily challenge of basket making and all that goes with it. "I built these display cases last year," he proudly notes, gesturing at shelves and discussing in depth the carpentry involved in their construction. "At one show, someone asked me if I'd build them a display case like it. But I had to say, 'No, I'm going to stick with just making baskets.' "