A committed and exacting artist and mentor, Sue Williams, of Morrison, has almost single-handedly taken on the preservation of the Cannon County white oak basket making tradition. One of the most respected community-based craft legacies in the United States, Cannon County basketry, is treasured for its artistic intricacy and deep heritage. Sue’s devotion to teaching this art, and advocacy on the statewide and regional level, has secured the tradition’s survival beyond the passing of the original basket making families.
Sue took her first class in 1985 at the Warren County UT Extension Office from Estel Youngblood—whose work resides at the Smithsonian Institution—and Gertie Youngblood, two of the most significant makers in the basket revival of the 1970s and 1980s. While not a descendant of one of the established basket making families, Sue immediately demonstrated a knack for the craft, so much so that Gertie told Sue that basket making was “in her blood.” The following year Sue became part of a planning group for UT Extension Homemakers’ Heritage Skills Seminar. She used her contacts with Gertie and Estel, as well as basket maker Mary Jane Prater, to ensure that White Oak Basketry became a recurring annual workshop each October at the Clyde York 4-H Center near Crossville, Tennessee.
By 1990, Gertie Youngblood had begun to give Sue extra attention as an, especially promising student. Gertie presented Sue with an uncompleted basket frame in her characteristic oblong style, which Sue completed on her own with appropriately fine splits. Sue entered the basket in the 1991 Warren County Fair, where it won a blue ribbon. For Sue, though, the biggest compliment was that Gertie at first mistook the piece as being entirely her own work.
In 2003, Sue assumed full responsibility for teaching the Crossville workshops. In 2015, a spring class was added. As she became recognized for her mastery, Sue became in demand as a teacher in other venues. She has since taught at the Alabama Folk School, Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, the Arts Center in Cannon County, as well as private classes. In October 2017, she began teaching at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina.
In 2017, Sue formalized her teaching efforts by becoming part of the Tennessee Arts Commission’s inaugural Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, along with her apprentice, Brenda Kucharski. The program seeks to preserve and pass down rare and endangered traditions. She has taught in each of the subsequent years, with apprentices Michelle Hennessee and Rhonda Elkins Brown. Sue teaches the full process required to make a finished product, from tree to basket. Her apprentices learn how to locate an appropriate white oak tree, harvest a pole, and then break the log into the rims, handles, ribs, and weavers necessary to make a basket. The completed baskets feature the Cannon County Tie, a special X pattern, with a vertical bar woven at the point where the basket handle connects to the rim on each side.
Recognized as a premier teacher and promoter of her craft, Sue was one of only nine recipients in 2019 of the inaugural In These Mountains: Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowships, a program of South Arts designed to highlight and support exemplary traditional bearers from the Appalachian region of Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina.