Melanie Walter discovers her love for a long lost art form, and helps to sustain its future
By KIM HENRY
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the secret pull of that which you truly love” - wise words from the ancient Sufi poet Rumi, and ones that clearly resonate with local artist Melanie Walter. Having bought a property with over one hundred longleaf pine trees, discovering pine needle basket weaving was the next step on the path to becoming a full time artist, advocate for the re-forestation of this indigenous tree and protector of an official Heritage Art.
Born in New Jersey, Walter moved to Wilmington in 1986 when she was looking for a change of pace, and her mother retired to these sandy shores. Having always loved to “create something out of nothing,” Walter was drawn to the arts from a young age. This passion was encouraged by Walters’ family until she hit college, when her mother lovingly advised her to do secretarial science as a means to a decent livelihood ― after all ― who gets to pay the bills by being a full time artist? However, one of the many kismet interventions in Walters’ life occurred when her guidance councilor begged her to take just one drawing class before changing courses―needless to say Walter stayed with art.
Fast forward a couple decades, and although Walter continued to pursue her love of ceramics, her day job was the Activities Director at Plantation Village Retirement Community here in Wilmington. Then Walter bought a house in Ogden which just happened to be saturated with longleaf pine trees. “I will always remember the first time I raked pine needles in my new yard. I was looking down at them and I suddenly realized how beautiful they were. I didn’t want to use them just as mulch,” recalls Walter with a twinkle in her nature-loving eye.
After a little research, Walter discovered what else she could do with longleaf pine needles―make baskets out of them. In fact, she discovered an entire art form that was all but lost, a tradition of the American Indians who used the needles to make functional pieces. Inspired but unable to find a teacher, Walter taught herself this traditional craft using drawings and books, and has been evolving her own unique style ever since. She now fuses her pottery skills into her creations, along with slices of black walnut, buttons, bamboo, seeds and beads. “I take anything I can find in nature, slice it and see if I can use it in my work,” explains Walter, whose affiliation with the elemental world is palpable.
Then at the age of fifty-two Walters’ life took yet another turn. “I enjoyed my job but every spare minute was spent with my beloved pine needles and furthering my artistic endeavors,” smiles Walter as her fingers nimbly coil the elegant, golden products of nature. “When my mother passed away due to complications with Alzheimer's, I thought to myself, life is so precious, what do you really want to do?”
Making the transition into being a full time artist was a courageous leap for Walter, and one that also led to her becoming a member of The Longleaf Alliance which was established in 1995. The aim of this non-profit is to ensure a sustainable future for the longleaf pine tree and ecosystem which was in grave danger up until a few years ago. The original 93 million acres of forests that spanned the nine states of the South East were reduced to just 3 million acres until the tides gradually began to turn. Re-forestation is now on the rise thanks to the tireless work of groups like the Longleaf Alliance.
Walters’ indomitable energy means that she is also a member of the Piedmont Craftsmen Guild and the Carolina Designer Craftsmen Guild. She currently teaches at the Cameron Art museum, has toured schools spreading awareness about this sustainable craft, and sells her pine needle baskets and jewelry in countless galleries across America, and out of Port City Pottery and Fine Crafts in the Cotton Exchange in downtown Wilmington.
Walter joined this eclectic artists co-op in 2007 and it now boasts of 21 members who all help to run the shop and support the appreciation of handmade 3D arts and crafts. Ever the innovator, Walter accepts private commissions, and makes ‘Memory Baskets’ where she weaves significant buttons, provided by her clients, into the basket itself. She also has an original line of Christmas decorations and ornaments especially for the season.
Walter and her pine needles truly are a match made in heaven as she will happily attest, “I am lucky enough to have found an artistic medium that is a renewable resource and the love of my life―both in my own back yard! Needless to say, I have one of the cleanest yards in town!”