Homer Burning Basket celebrates 20 years

After participating in an interactive and impermanent art event in California in 2004, Homer artist Mavis Muller was inspired to bring the idea home. Since that time, she has been leading the creation of Homer’s annual Burning Basket, a community-wide collaboration that brings to life a Basket of Remembrance & Unburdening.

Although the basket was previously built completely on-site at Mariner Park Beach, for the past several years, work has begun on Muller’s property in late August, with Muller and volunteers gathering natural materials from the surrounding landscape. Over the course of several days to a week, the basket frame is built using alder. It is then taken apart and transported to the beach where it is put back together, like a puzzle. Then, the process of weaving with grasses begins, followed by flowers, leaves and other materials used to embellish and decorate.

On the final day, once the basket is decorated, it is offered as a gift to the community, with everyone invited to write and place personal messages on and within the basket. At sundown, with drummers drumming and fire performers performing, community members form a circle around the basket a safe distance away, as volunteers light torches and place them beneath the basket. Cracking and hissing, with embers soaring upwards, the basket burns to ash, a symbol of the impermanent nature of life.

Every year, the basket is given a name of significance and meaning. The first basket was “Adieu.” This year’s basket is “Create.” For Muller, the names tell the story of the art project and its longevity in the community.

Adieu, Renew, & Reflect

Impart, Surpass, & Sustain

Imagine, Together & Inspire

Enjoy, Grow, Reach & Expand

Shine, Dream & Radiate

Reimagine, Recover, Breathe & Create

“What’s powerful to me is that when you read them in order, it reads like poetry, like a story evolving over 20 years,” Muller said.

While Muller leads the creation of the basket with help from community volunteers and visitors, Fireweed Academy’s elementary school students build a circular walking path nearby, made with rocks and adorned with flowers, shells and other natural materials, and have been doing so for nearly all of the past 20 years. While the basket culminates in being burned, the walking path remains in place until winter storms wash it away, so that it too is impermanent.

“The impermanent nature of the art heightens our awareness to the present moment,” Muller said. “I think about all the individuals who gather together to willingly face fire as an symbolic action of letting go of what was, accepting what is and moving forward to what will be. My friend and mentor, Auntie Nahi said that sometimes in the face of fire we feel helpless as it destroys what we love, causes trauma and hardship, and becomes difficult to defend as an essential elemental life force with a healing aspect. With this basket, we come together in the knowledge that as something ends, something begins.”

Building lasts a week, with the backdrop of mountains and bay, birds and marine life, and adults, children and dogs walking by, while dozens of hands rotate through, embellishing and decorating.

Willy Dunne has been involved since the beginning, gathering and transporting materials, and attending to a myriad of other tasks as needed.

“Over the years, the basket has evolved in some ways and in other ways, remained consistent in how it’s been carried out,” Dunne said. “It’s an autumn ritual that’s not only a beautiful piece of art created by the community, but helps us remember that everything around us is impermanent.”

Following the Japanese tradition of folding cranes that symbolizes peace, love, hope and healing during difficult times, Kathi Drew has for more than 15 years been folding hundreds upon hundreds of paper cranes on which community members write messages and place on or in the basket.

“The paper cranes were Mavis’s idea and I thought that making them was something I could do to help out,” Drew said. “People seem to appreciate writing on them and the basket becomes covered with their messages.”

Drew’s mother, Florence Penrod, is 100 years old and had for numerous years been supplying Muller and her volunteers with homemade chocolate chip cookies.

“Making cookies was something I could do and they always seemed to enjoy them and get a bit of extra energy,” she said.

Penrod’s daughters have taken over baking and delivering the cookies, with Penrod continuing her annual trek to the beach to see Mavis and that year’s basket.

Among others, Laurie Daniels, Char Jump and Christine Kulcheski also volunteer every year, while other help comes from community members and visitors who stop by to lend a hand as they have time.

“I’m grateful for all the volunteers who are so passionate about this project,” Muller said. “This basket brings the creative magic out in everyone.”

A basket weaver for 40 years and with work in galleries and museums, Muller in 2004 received a grant from Alaska State Council on the Arts and was part of a crew in California who created a large, outdoor, impermanent art sculpture.

“That was a profound experience for me and I was inspired,” she said. “‘Adieu’ was me going into the unknown, utilizing my skills as a basket maker on a large scale and making it up as we went along.”

Today, as Muller guides “Create,” she reflects upon the past 19 years, including 45 other enactments of the burning basket she has led in communities in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Spain, Portugal, New Mexico/Mexico border, Panama and Hawaii.

“This basket is an art installation and a journey into the heart of the natural world and a journey inwards,” she said. “The cycle of this journey is imagined, created, actualized, consumed, erased and then imagined again. So the cycle of this art reminds us of the life and death cycle.”

During the past 20 years, Muller has learned not only how to create large outdoor interwoven sculptures that differ every year, but how to create sculptures in a way that will burn beautifully.

“In this case, the burn is the ultimate conclusion,” Muller said. “What we are gathered around this sculpture to do is to integrate into our beings this notion of impermanence, that nothing lasts forever. To release something like the basket when it is at its peak of beauty is a part of that impermanence and that brings for many a sense of letting go. The basket gives us the practice of letting go of something beautiful, of something that we really loved and of feeling the support of our community.”

Among the numerous recognition Muller and her burning basket project have received, in 2016 the City of Homer issued a proclamation of recognition, acknowledging the basket as a civic function that helps build a stronger community. Primarily self-funded, she has received help from a Go Fund Me in recent years, and this year, financial support from the Homer Foundation.

“It takes a village to build this basket,” she said. “It is owned by no one and belongs to everyone. I guide the project, but how it speaks to each individual person I can’t say. The proclamation of recognition lists all the ways it has been proving itself as valuable and I’m honored to be part of the journey into the heart of this basket and what it has come to mean to people.”

Build week continues until Sept. 9 from noon to 8 p.m. at Mariner Park Beach. Volunteers are needed to help embellish the basket. On Sept. 10 beginning at noon, everyone is invited to stop by, enjoy the basket, write and place messages and stay for the burn that takes place at sundown. “Create, Basket of Remembrance & Unburdening” is a free event and is alcohol- and dog-free.

For more information, follow Mavis Muller on Facebook.

Artist Mavis Muller collects tall wild grass as she begins creating the frame for the 20th anniversary Burning Basket, titled “Create,” with the grass twisted and woven into the basket frame in September 2023. Photo provided by Mavis Muller

Artist Mavis Muller collects tall wild grass as she begins creating the frame for the 20th anniversary Burning Basket, titled “Create,” with the grass twisted and woven into the basket frame in September 2023. Photo provided by Mavis Muller