Balance in all things

As the executive director of the Homer based Whirling Rainbow Foundation non-profit organization on culture and the arts, I wanted to share my input on the Burning Basket Project and the events I witnessed in the courtroom on Dec. 17, 2015. As an international artist and teacher, I have traveled nearly a million miles across 20 countries touching a million people in cultural, visual, healing arts workshops, performances festivals and ceremonies.

It was an honor to stand by Mavis Muller at the courtroom with many of our Homer community and fellow artists, school teachers, and other executive directors of local non-profit arts programs and unite together in a good way for this incredible visionary and compassionate community Burning Basket Art Project.

I was inspired when I meet Mavis for the first time in Hawaii in 2009 when she created a Burning Basket Project as an artist in residence at Kalani arts organization and retreat center on the Big Island. This year, due to my travel schedule, I had the chance for the first time to be home in Homer and volunteer three days in the rain on the basket building. I met people who drove all the way from Anchorage to be there for this newsworthy project, including staff from Alaska Dispatch News and the University of Alaska Anchorage newspapers as well as our local Homer News.

Mavis, who, though deeply impacted and still shaken and trying to heal from Elias Graham’s repeated arson and vandalizing of the basket, conducted herself in the courtroom that day with the utmost grace and respect to all involved. I feel the most important thing that still needs be addressed appropriately is that the courts, Elias’s parents and the Homer community cannot minimize the penalty by marginalizing the value of this transformational piece of art and community healing. Elias chose not once, but twice to arson and steal the basket and this cannot be minimized. This does not respect Elias, Mavis or our community at large.

It’s important to bring a balanced justice to young Elias, who had a chance in the courtroom to see the deep impact that his choices made on our community. At no time, before, during (even with a prompting by Judge Murphy) or after this court session did he have the respect to apologize to Mavis and the community. I was in shock by what I did witness. If I had, as a child even stolen as much as a candy bar, my parents would take me personally to return the object and apologize, then give me appropriate consequences that would make me clearly know that this could never happen again. We were raised to respect our elders. What I saw that day at court was parents, police and attorneys trying to minimize the impact to Elias’s future record and completely disregarded the true nature and impact of his crime.

As a top professional and national award-winning artist, Marvis has dedicated 12 years to the Burning Basket Project and at least 200-500 people attend the Homer Burning Basket celebration each year from all over Alaska. To me it’s an absolute professional disgrace to Mavis and all Alaskan artists to value the basket at $35. Alaskan Native grass baskets are often the size of a dinner plate or smaller and are valued from hundreds to thousands of dollars. The Burning Basket is a larger-than-life woven basket with an intricate design the same as any Native basket. The Basket needs weeks of strenuous labor to gather and haul the grasses, willows, alders and wildflowers for its making. And if the courts need to be educated on the value of an art project that eventually gets burned, then they can to read about the Black Rocks Arts Foundation that gives grants between $5,000 and $10,000 for art exactly likely the Burning Basket to be made for the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.

The Black Rocks Arts Foundation funds exactly the same kind of projects as the Homer Burning Basket:

“This program funds highly interactive, community-driven works of art that prioritize community involvement in their development, execution and display. We fund art that is accessible to the public, civic in scope and prompts the viewer to act. We like art that can be experienced in more ways than visually — art that is touched, heard or experienced as well as viewed. We prioritize funding art that involves the audience in its conception, creation and presentation.” (

At the minimum, this devoted artist and generous human being needs to be compensated for the true value of the basket and her over 200 professional hours to construct this year’s Burning Basket Art, as well as materials, tools, tents, hiring of assistants etc. This does not even include the hundreds of hours by dozen of community members and schools who were deeply involved in the Burning Baskets few week construction and celebration. 

What happened in the court has not adequately addressed this nor the emotional footprint it left on Mavis, other Homer elders involved and our community at large.

I highly recommend that Elias completes the appropriate community service time to the actual Burning Basket Project through a local non-profit in at least the equal hours and financial value of the artist professional time and resources. This is fair and appropriate and gives Elias a chance to see exactly what the Burning Basket “REACH” project and Homer community is all about … reaching out to guide our youth and future generations with far more love, compassion, respect and honor and the correct balance in all things.

I thank Mavis, Char and the other passionate community members who care enough about us all to provide such an inspiring and artistic healing project.

And to Elias I would say that I truly care about you as well and I am requesting these consequences to the courts to assist you to become a more aligned and mature adult in heart, mind and body. Bless this experience for all of us as we REACH for truth, justice and the highest good of all.

Suraj Holzwarth is the executive director of the Grandmother Drum International Peace Project The Whirling Rainbow Foundation. She lives in Homer.