Master basketweaver Nico Solimano
A chat with the artisan in his workshop
A chat with the artisan in his workshop
The Italian basket maker Nicola Solimano is taciturn, he does not like to talk about himself very much, but at my insistence, he agreed to tell me his story over the time of weaving an object. With his skilled hands, Nico weavesvegetable fibres to give shape to different objects: cylindrical, rectangular, spiral baskets, large and small vases, trays, fruit bowls, lamps, animals, and containers of all kinds. Nico is now a master of this art, with his calloused hands he handles the branches, flexes them, intertwines them, and models them silently, seven to eight hours a day.
How did you approach the art of weaving?
I approached the art of weaving about ten years ago. I had a steady job, I was a computer scientist in a company, but I was tired of a stressful and monotonous job. One day I had a shock: seeing a documentary about a Venezuelan artisan, José Briceño, who made paper hats in a family workshop, I realised that it was time to change my life and dedicate myself to what I always had wanted: manual work. After all, I have craftsmanship in my blood, my parents were upholsterers and my grandfather was a saddler. So I made up my mind, I gave up on a secure job to have more free time and devote myself to my passion, much more rewarding for my well being. The first works were actually on paper, but then having participated in a willow and reed weaving training workshop, I fell in love with wicker and I made weaving my new profession.
What are the materials that are most congenial to you?
My favourite material is the willow branch, or to be exact the salix viminalis, better known as "wicker" or "vinco", although sometimes I also try cane and marsh grasses such as sedge. I buy the raw material mainly in other European countries, where there are still numerous producers of willows and the value for money is better than in Italy.
For the interweaving work i use young, long, flexible and hulled and unhulled branches. Typically, willow plants are grown in humid soils and harvesting is done once a year, at the end of winter, when the plants are dormant. After harvesting, the bundled wickerwork to be peeled is put into water to germinate and then be peeled by hand or machine. After a long drying period, the branches are gathered in bundles of equal height and stored. The more flexible the wicker is, the more it is suitable for twisting. Practically there is no waste from wicker, from the residues of the branches other small objects can be created, racks, pendants, garlic containers, decorations and so on.
Do you work alone or do you collaborate with other artisans and artists?
I am a loner, I usually work seven to eight hours a day in my laboratory in Anguillara Sabazia, not far from Rome, sometimes I turn on the radio for company, but then I turn it off to find the silence necessary to seek inspiration, the right solution, the flicker of creativity. The work may seem repetitive, some objects may seem similar but in reality, infinite details make them different from each other, each new creation represents a challenge, conscience and time are needed for it. From time to time I also collaborate with other artists, such as the ceramic artist Luisa Raggi, with whom we propose creations in partnership, experimenting with the combination of clay and wicker, giving life to contaminations and original creations that are also exhibited in art exhibitions.
Would you like to tell us about other projects you are involved in?
Once basketry, perhaps more ancient than weaving and ceramics, was a necessity: baskets, containers, and panniers were indispensable for crops, transport, conservation, building. Even today, especially in some Asian and African countries, basketry is very common and everywhere in the countryside objects of wicker and rush are used for agriculture, furnishings and everyday use.
In Europe, on the other hand, an attempt is mostly made to keep alive the memory of the forms and techniques of a millenary tradition. Unlike Germany, France and Spain, where craftsmanship is more encouraged, in Italy, there are no longer many professional basket makers. So I thought of giving life, with the collaboration of other masters active in Italy, to a project that had the aim of handing down the secrets of this millenary art, the different techniques, the use of tools, and the choice of materials, forms and traditions of use.
Thus was born Wikicesteria, a webspace specifically dedicated to the structured collection of information relating to the art of basketry, starting from the composition of a glossary of Italian local, regional and dialectal terminologies. Our project is open to anyone who wants to spread their knowledge, skills and experience in the field of basketry. Know-how is often handed down for generations, and it would be nice to be able to pass it on again through a fruitful intertwining of knowledge!
Nico is self-taught, he documented, studied, attended the courses of master basketmakers and, thanks to his great dexterity, has now become so expert that by now he is called to hold workshops throughout Italy and abroad to teach Italians and foreigners, enthusiasts and already expert basket makers.