A Catskill Catalog: Oct. 28, 2009
The baskets are slightly more oblong than round, an eight-inch basket seven inches wide at the handle. The handle itself is two or three willow shoots wrapped around each other arching over the basket at a height about equal to the basket’s width. The willow-shoot handle circles to the bottom of the basket forming its lower spine. Another piece of willow oblongs round to form the top edge spine. Seven strong shoots fan out from those spines to make the basket’s skeleton. Willow weaved in and out, over and under, form the basket’s body.
A diamond shaped pattern of light and dark stripped-reeds bind the handle, spines, and skeleton on each side of the well-made basket. This is the distinctive signature. This is a Karl Amor basket.
Karl Amor made the most beautifully crafted baskets I’ve ever seen. He did it right here in the Catskills.
I first met Karl at the New Kingston Whoop-De-Doo, a celebration of country living sponsored by the New Kingston Presbyterian Church back in the ’70s. I was living in New Kingston then, and Karl’s basket-making demonstration table was set up on our front lawn. I liked him immediately.
Karl was Estonian. Estonia is one of the Baltic States, along with Latvia and Lithuania. Located on the Baltic Sea in northeast Europe, Estonia is a little country caught between larger more powerful neighbors, a fact that has given it a difficult, sometimes tragic history. Karl was in the Catskills because of that tragic history.
Karl came to the Catskills in 1950 as a displaced person, homeless and without a country as a result of World War II. He was placed with Ruff Farms, the dairy and cauliflower farm in the lower New Kingston Valley operated, then, by Francis, Marion, Floyd, and Dot Ruff. When I knew Karl, he had retired from active farm work and he and his wife lived in a little house about a mile south of the farm where he had worked.
It was in his retirement that Karl returned to the basket making that he had learned as a child. Born in 1906 (a particularly good year for people, I’ve found) Karl grew up on a self-sufficient farm. His mother made willow baskets to sort, carry and store vegetables and other goods. As a boy, Karl’s job was to keep watch on the cattle. His mother taught him how to make baskets so he would stay awake and alert on the job. She taught him well.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Karl was a policeman. Estonia was a victim of the infamous August 1939 non-aggression pact signed by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. In September of that year, the Soviet Navy and Air Force attacked Estonia. In June, the Red Army invaded, and two months later, annexed Estonia into the USSR. Karl fought the Russians.
A year later the Germans invaded Estonia as part of their drive east into Russian territory. Were they conquerors or liberators? I never wanted to ask Karl too much about those days because I didn’t want to know the answer to that question. What I did know was that he and his people were caught between two unacceptable forces, Nazism and Stalinism. No good choices there. Karl ended up a man without a country.
But what a man he was. He was short, stocky, a bit unkempt, always unshaven with a couple days stubble (before it became cosmopolitan chic). He walked with a stoop, his back bent and his hands gnarled with arthritis. He used a hand-hewn cane attached to his wrist with a bit of chain. The knife he used to cut willow shoots and reeds hung from his waist.
Karl would often be seen riding his bicycle in the warm months, collecting his basket-making materials from his secret spots. Like a fisherman keeping silent about his most productive fishing holes, Karl kept his streamside collecting points quiet. He was a prolific producer, making baskets of all sizes and a variety of shapes, all with his distinctive two-toned diamond-shaped signature reed binding where the handle meets the base.
He sold his baskets so cheap they were practically free. When a local folklorist friend, Mary Zwolinski, suggested he could get a lot more for them, Karl replied that he was more interested in making sure that local people could own them, and lots of local people didn’t have much money.
That sensitivity to other people was a powerful trait in Karl. I remember the tears in his eyes when he and I spoke about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China. “All those beautiful young people,” he said, his voice full of a sadness tinged with the memory of the pain he himself had experienced at the hands of tyranny.
Karl Amor died of a stroke in February 1992. His friend, the folklorist Mary Zwolinski, wrote a tribute to him in that summer’s New York Folklore Newsletter. The many Catskill Mountain locals who own baskets he made possess their own tribute, a little part of Karl. He lives in the willows and the reeds.