On a blistering hot day in August 1979, I drove 112 miles on secondary roads across three rural counties in what used to be known as Alabama’s “Black Belt” from my base in Monroeville to a town called Eutaw. There, I rendezvoused with Edna Thomas, a 74-year-old social worker, who took me to meet Joshua Bailey, a 94-year-old basketmaker. And that encounter, best as I can reckon, marked the beginning of the Museum of Authenticity.
Later that fall, I began to volunteer part-time in the Anthropology Department of the Denver Museum of Natural History. During my two years in the department, I created a storage system for the basket study collection that would reduce unnecessary handling and coincidental damage to the baskets. There, surrounded by dioramas and collections and curators, I remember saying, at least once, certainly to myself and perhaps out loud, how fulfilling it would be to create a small museum—to research and write about collected objects and to design and build exhibits to display them. I had long enjoyed research when a subject engaged me, and although I had not yet undertaken any noteworthy building projects myself, my father’s grandfather was, after all, a carpenter.
But at the time the idea of a museum occurred to me, I didn’t pursue it because I was still happily teaching high school biology and cultural anthropology. Without knowing it, however, I had already purchased the very object that prompted the thought: a remarkable small basket made by the Joshua Bailey I had met and photographed in Eutaw. It seems that a young man had brought Joshua Bailey an aluminum beverage can and asked whether he could use it to make an oak-split basket. Rising to the challenge, Mr. Bailey removed the top of the can, cut the “sides” into narrow vertical strips, wove the sides up from the base with thin strips of split oak, and attached a handle. Mr. Bailey made the particular basket I bought from him with a Budweiser beer can, but he also used red Coca-Cola cans and others. When I paid Mr. Bailey the three dollars he asked for my basket, I had no idea that his successful blend of a traditional craft with a non-traditional material would lead me to imagine a museum filled with similarly innovative, cross-cultural objects.
In March 2013, I purchased a property in Salida, Colorado. In no time, I realized that the building was destined to become the museum I had glimpsed in my imagination decades before. The focus of the collection shifted to my work, the works of other American artists, and handmade utilitarian objects, primarily from Greece. But, Mr. Bailey’s basket remains the cornerstone of the Museum of Authenticity.