Artist finds inspiration scattered on the lawn

Published April 26, 2007

Simple brown pine needles are either raked from lawns with mutters of irritation or just ignored.

But Teri Thompson treasures them - and turns them into baskets that many people consider works of art. Her pine needle creations can now fetch up to $1,000 each. Not bad for a hobby.

Thompson uses the slash pine needles that are everywhere, free for the taking. All she has to do is collect them, trim off rough ends and lay them in neat bundles. Sometimes she sets up pans outside and trots in and out with kettles of hot water, adding Rit dye, turning pine needles purple, blue or red.

Then she sets to work. No plan, no designs, no shape or style in mind.

Just Thompson, her pine needles, a curved stitching needle and some artificial sinew that comes in many colors. Around and around, her fingers push the needle, forming a continuous coil.

Thompson, who lives in Wesley Chapel, usually makes the decision for what's next in the design as she works. Occasionally she turns to her husband, Roger, a woodworker, for suggestions.

"Sometimes I just start working and end with, 'Oh, look what I made,' " Thompson says with a laugh.

Thompson picks up a basket, and glances up with a shy smile of delight.

It may be small, like the ones she has that are 3 or 4 inches in diameter, or large like the black and red one, about 20 inches tall with a snug-fitting lid.

About four years ago Thompson met a man at an art show who was making pine needle baskets. She asked him to show her how. They spent about four hours together.

Then Thompson was off to the library. She gathered up books.

"Most of them were old," she says. "From the 1950s and '60s."

She has no art training, no design classes; only a small amount of sewing in high school home ec. But she knew what she wanted to do. And she had the books.

She read and gathered pine needles. Then she started.

Her first basket, small with seashells dangling around the sides, seems almost out of place next to more than 40 elegant baskets now crowding her dining room table. There are slices of colorful agate, sections of maple burl or cross sections of black walnut - Roger cuts those on a band saw - worked into the baskets.

"At first I made them for friends and family, and then I had to expand that circle," Thompson says with a laugh. "My family encouraged me to branch out."

The branching out has gone in several directions, none expected. Thompson sold baskets while serving on jury duty. Not intentionally. She had her needles and stitching supplies with her. She filled her waiting time stitching a basket. A small crowd gathered. A woman asked to see completed samples. She liked them. Bought three.

On a flight to Washington state to visit family, Thompson worked on a basket. Before the plane landed the basket was sold.

Thompson was invited to exhibit as an Emerging New Artist at the 2007 Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in Tampa; she displayed her work at the recent Mainsail Arts Festival in St. Petersburg; and Saturday and Sunday she will exhibit at Longleaf Fine Arts on the Village Green in the Longleaf community of New Port Richey.

Thompson admits one of the hardest parts is pricing. Small baskets go for $40 to $50. Larger ones are $200 and up, with some over $1,000. Prices reflect the time it takes to make the basket.

Thompson works full-time as a programming analyst for Verizon Wireless. The baskets are something to do with her hands while she watches her favorite TV shows.

What if the demand for her baskets grows? What if the pressure to produce more baskets increases?

Thompson's face grows serious and she shakes her head. "If it becomes a job then it's a different perspective."

But for now - and the smile returns - Thompson says, "It's making bigger and better and getting fancier."

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In addition to art shows, Teri Thompson's baskets made from pine needles can be seen at www.thethompsongallery.com.