• Does the person create the journey or does the journey create the person?
By Christina Whiting
Throughout the years, mentors have helped guide and shape the journey of Mavis Muller’s life as a visual artist. A basket and story weaver who refers to herself as a migratory artist, Muller uses locally gathered plant and tree fibers to create baskets of all sizes. She’s created a niche for her art locally and nationally, and is well-known for her annual Burning Basket enactments of community interactive, impermanent art.
Born and raised in North Dakota, Muller affectionately refers to her small farming community as a Lake Woebegone-like culture.
“My father owned the hardware store and was a community leader,” Muller said. “My mother was a seamstress and cake decorator. Both were civic-minded and nurtured my creativity and leadership skills.”
After college, Muller was less interested in a career and more interested in the back-to-the-land movement toward self-reliance. It was in the 1970s that she moved to the Rocky Mountains of western Montana to embark on an alternative lifestyle.
“Mother Earth News became the textbook for a backwoods lifestyle,” she explained. “I was an eager student, wanting to build a log cabin, dig a well, grow food, milk goats, raise animals and make art.”
Muller taught herself how to make little baskets with pine needles and other plant fibers. Using these materials from the land, she created and sold her baskets and began to carve out a living for herself.
Those 10 years of living close to nature formed lifelong philosophies for Muller. Her creativity began to merge with her advocacy for preservation of the natural world. She joined with like-minded troubadours and toured the western United States, entertaining audiences and enlisting advocates in defense of roadless areas and wild places.
In 1983, she met writer and wilderness defender Edward Abbey.
“Abbey had a profound impact on the direction my life was taking,” Muller said. “He introduced me once as an ‘artist-naturalist,’ and when I asked him to explain the term, he told me it was more than a term. He said it was an occupation and that it was my occupation. With that guidance, I made a commitment of creative partnership with nature, to use my art to give voice to the natural world and to educate and build community around the ideals of a protected, nurtured world.”
In the winter of 1984, Muller traveled to Alaska. She was eager to visit Homer, a community she had read about years earlier when a story about Homer homesteader Yule Kilcher graced the cover of Mother Earth News.
“I’ll never forget seeing Baycrest Hill for the first time,” Muller shared. “I was smitten by the beauty and aimed myself to a camping spot on the Spit.”
Muller walked into Ptarmigan Arts, the co-op gallery, and was greeted by artist Gary Lyons. Lyons encouraged her to apply to jury her art in to the gallery and she did so, successfully. She also rented one of the gallery’s small workshop spaces and went to work in her first Homer art studio.
“This was my home away from van and was a great way to integrate into the community,” Muller shared.
Muller and her dog Bailey camped on the Spit for six months, and then rented a cabin out East End Road. In 1995, she purchased the land and built her current studio-home. Here, she lives nestled into Sandhill Crane habitat and cultivates a life rich in art and advocacy.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was a turning point for Muller, challenging her to use her art to respond to the disaster. She created a series of large banners that appeared in a number of demonstrations. One of her banners has become an iconic element of Alaska history and has appeared in Museums of Contemporary Art in New York, Sydney, Australia and recently in Vigo, Spain, where it hung in an exhibition in response to Spain’s devastating oil spill in 2002. Muller traveled to Spain to speak at the opening of the show and coordinated a basket burning for the community there.
“It was an honor to carry a thread of connection between communities that are separated by vast distance, but that have each suffered the trauma of a giant oil spill,” Muller explained. “Art is communication and can be a healing force.”
Muller’s life as a self-supporting, touring artist has become a challenge recently, as travel and lodging expenses have increased.
“Art venues are less spontaneous in promoting the touring artist,” Muller explained. “They require a year or more advance planning, which conflicts with my impromptu tendencies.”
Art grants have helped to support her lifestyle. These funding sources include the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Rasmussen Foundation and Black Rock Arts Foundation.
In 2004, Muller received a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts to travel to Nevada and participate with a team of artists under the direction of artist/architect David Best. Together, the team built a massive, interactive, impermanent, fire-art installation for Burning Man.
“David introduced me to the significance of community-based interactive art as a civic function,” Muller explained. “He told me to not compromise artistic integrity, even if the work is impermanent. He taught me that how you do anything is how you do everything. And I learned how creativity and imagination assist in the process of letting go.”
Muller returned to Homer, and within the month created the first Burning Basket. Since then, she’s facilitated 26 basket burnings in Alaska, Oregon, California, Hawaii (Big Island, Maui, Molokai), New Mexico/Mexico border and in Spain. This year is Homer’s tenth-annual burning basket.
“This collaborative art experience is an opportunity for the community to disperse positive intentions, release burdens, remember departed loved ones and make memories,” Muller said.
The baskets are intended to be inclusive to all. There are no religious or cultural ties to it, and anyone can participate in the construction as much or as little as they like.
“This is an ongoing story,” Muller shared. “Even when the basket has been burned and the coals are cold, the story continues. This kind of art is never static. It is either being imagined, created, actualized, consumed, erased, or imagined again.”
This year’s Burning Basket is called “Enjoy.” The build takes place between Sept. 8 and 14 at Mariner Park. It will be presented as a gift to the community on Sept. 15, and then ignited at sunset.
Muller migrates in and out of Homer each year, leaving in October to teach, exhibit, speak and facilitate burning baskets in other communities. She returns in April to teach workshops and showcase her work.
Grateful for the mentors who have helped her throughout her life, Muller is eager to do the same for others.
“I want to inspire by example and to offer encouragement,” Muller shared. “I want to recognize and nurture others who are moving toward their own artistic goals. It takes courage to live a creative life, and while it isn’t always easy, it’s always worth it.”
Muller has woven herself deeply in to the fabric of the community. Her commitment to art and activism is an inspiration — and she’s not finished yet.
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