Charles Antone: Weaving with Wire to Uphold a Tradition

Charles Antone has thick, calloused fingers that look like they could hold on hard to a lasso and wrangle a calf. Instead, they weave and loop thin wire into delicate baskets. A member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Antone, 45, has been weaving wire baskets for 25 years. To his knowledge, he is one of only three wire basket makers remaining on the Nation.  Antone learned the craft from a Tohono O’odham elder, who he saw making a basket on the reservation.

Though not an ancient craft, wire basket weaving exemplifies the resourcefulness of the Tohono O’odham people. Men began making wire baskets with bailing wire from hay bales.  “I’ve seen nice baskets from a long time ago,” Antone said. “And I look at it and think: that seems really hard to work with, for your hands.”

Antone uses thinner wire today, such as craft wire he buys at Michael’s or colored wire donated from the power company.  “When I do the thick stuff, it hurts my hands,” Antone said. “But the silver, it’s really easy. I can do a pair of earrings in 20 minutes.” Baskets are typically used to hang food such as fruit and bread, Antone said. “Instead of a plastic bag, they hung them under ramadas to keep them away from animals, dogs,” he said.

Antone’s baskets are both utilitarian and decorative and use a basic spiral design. He also makes earrings and pendants. “My first original I made for my mother. I made it in one day. When she passed away, I found it again. I put it in a display case now, because of her. I tell everybody it’s the first thing I made, the very first basket, 25 years ago.”

Antone has shown his work at the Heard Museum in Phoenix and sells in shops in Tucson and beyond, he said. On a good day he can earn up to $400 through sales at Tucson stores, adding that if he had more resources to pay for materials he might be able to survive off of his art. For now, he also works also as a cook, he said. Recognizing that wire basket weaving is a dying art, Antone has begun to share the craft with young people through school residencies. “It was passed on to me and I’m going to pass it on to kids,” he said. Equipped with colored wire donated from the power company, Antone offered a demonstration and workshop at Has:an Academy, a Tohono O’odham school in Tucson where his niece and nephew attend.

Antone said he continues to practice wire basket weaving to promote his culture and heritage and fore the meditative benefits of keeping his hands at work. “It’s a dying art, that’s what I think. But for me to do it, it’s more like a meditation, just a release. Of course, there’s some extra money on the side,” Antone said. “Seeing people that love it and tell me, ‘That’s so intricate, it’s so beautiful, thank you,’ it hits a chord for me.”