Soon after winning a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in late June, Penobscot basketmaker Theresa Secord of Waterville called the recognition “the greatest honor that I could receive in my lifetime.”

The fellowship is, after all, “the nation’s highest honor in the traditional arts”, as Portland Press Herald writer Bob Keyes noted. Its nine recipients each receive a $25,000 stipend and will be feted at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in September.

Secord is quick to point out that six Mainers have won the award before and that three of them were Passamaquoddy basketmakers, Molly Neptune-Parker, Clara Keezer and Mary Gabriel.

After reaching such a career summit, where does one go? Second, 58, will keep moving. Her next stop is the Santa Fe Indian Market, Aug. 20-21, a national juried show featuring more than 1,000 Native artists, designers and craftspeople.

Secord has won first-place awards there for her baskets, as she also has at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair in Phoenix. Among her other honors, and closer to home, she was named Maine Master Craft Artist of the Year in 2013.

She will keep moving, and creating. Second is a traditionalist “still weaving on wooden forms that were handed down to me from the 1800s” through her great-grandmother, Philomene Saulis of Indian Island. Her work is also influenced by the late Madeline Tomer Shay, with whom she apprenticed for five years in the late 1980s.  Secord is now “experimenting with new materials,” e.g. cedar, beyond her time-honored ash and sweetgrass.


But Secord’s renowned artistry is not the only reason for the national award.

Having worked with Shay and elderly basket makers who were still carrying on the art, Secord was “determined not to watch traditional basketry fade into history and co-founded the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance.  She became its first director in 1993, mobilizing fellow Maine basketmakers to work together to save their own art, and bring forward a new generation of artists,” Kathleen Mundell wrote in Secord’s biography for the Maine Arts Commission.

Mundell notes that during Secord’s 21-year directorship, Maine basketmakers’ average age dropped from 63 to 40, and their numbers increased from 55 to more than 200. Secord also taught and consulted (as she continues to do) and in 2006 instituted an NEA-funded apprenticeship program.

She is “a passionate advocate for preserving the ash and sweetgrass basketmaking heritage of the Wabanaki tribes of Maine (Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot)” in Mundell’s words.

Secord’s comment: “I’m so proud to be a member of a small group of tribal artists, who set out to save their own art form more than 20 years ago, and did.

“It wasn’t very long ago that baskets weren’t considered art, and the art form was nearly lost,” she reflected.

“Now, it’s very exciting that the revived tradition gives young basketmakers a touchstone, so that they can take the art of basket-making in their own new and exciting directions.”

These monthly profiles are brought to you by Lee Auto Malls. The Lee family is committed to supporting local organizations that work to sustain Maine communities.

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