Steps beyond the quaint shops and cafes that dot Old Town Bluffton’s walkable streets, the colorful Maye River Gallery sits tucked between age-old live oaks cloaked in Spanish moss. Inside, local artist Donna Ireton’s extraordinary coiled baskets rest among bright watercolors, hammered metal jewelry, and smooth gourd sculptures.
Once essential for storing grains, meats, and other important supplies, baskets date to the earliest modern humans. The art of basket weaving developed independently among different cultures around the world, producing a range of rich styles and distinct forms that still endure today.
Ireton’s basketry style is an iconic blend of organic and contemporary styles. The self-taught artist’s modern works incorporate diverse natural materials, from palm pods and seashells to African driftwood and water buffalo horns. While most Lowcountry residents are familiar with sweetgrass baskets crafted from the region’s natural marsh grasses, Ireton looks up to the treetops rather than down to the salt marsh for her foundational basket making materials.
“I always admired the heavy branches of the longleaf pine,” she said. “It reminds me of a weeping willow.”
Ireton begins each basket with six longleaf pine needles or palm twigs, many dyed in calm blues and lush greens. As Ireton builds undulating rings of needles or twigs around her foundation, the design often takes on a life of its own, following the curvature of its support or bending to the natural direction of the coil. This natural process creates baskets characterized by a simple, understated form that ebbs and flows. Rich texture and earthy colors give each finished basket a rustic appeal.
Of course, this close connection with the earth is also vulnerable to outside forces, and perhaps that’s part of what makes Ireton’s craft so special. For years, the artist collected her basket weaving materials from a few areas where the island’s trees shed beautiful, long needles that she could easily access.
But that changed in 2016, when one of her primary trees toppled during Hurricane Matthew. After the storm subsided, Ireton harvested what she could from the fallen tree, using trash bags and hedge clippers to collect stacks of needles and place them into storage containers for safekeeping. Preserved in the dark containers, the needles dried to a unique sage green. The resulting baskets mixed shades of pale mint green with tones of weathered sand. Today, this palette still appears in much of Ireton’s work.
This year brought more change for Ireton, who moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, after calling Hilton Head Island home for 13 years. Always apt to find inspiration in her natural surroundings, she is already stripping the indigenous tumbleweed, dying the branches, and weaving them into her baskets. The Southwestern influence is visible in some of her pieces now on display at the Maye River Gallery, though the Lowcountry still shows through in much of her work.
And while her love for the Lowcountry will always bind her to Bluffton, Ireton relishes the opportunity to experience fresh adventures and a different lifestyle. “Don’t you ever get light feet?” she said.
As she embarks on her next adventure in New Mexico and becomes accustomed to new changes, one thing will remain the same: Ireton’s baskets continue to inhabit the corners and shelves of Bluffton’s Maye River Gallery, inviting customers to take them home or simply ponder their stories.
Written by Jessica Farthing
Photography by Krisztian Lonyai