HAZARD — It’s become an all-too-familiar, Appalachian story. An educated, talented young person from the mountains returns to the region, only to find that creating a lasting home here is next to impossible. The once-booming coal towns pock the landscape like lost souls, and living and surviving here requires a special kind of creativity that most people seem to lack.
That’s where Whitesburg’s Crystal Martin finds herself lucky.
On her own and out of work, Martin enrolled in Entrepreneurial Smarts Training, a class offered by Southeast Kentucky Economic Development (SKED) in Somerset. The class was a godsend, Martin intimated, especially because it showed her what she needed to do next.
“It just kind of clicked,” Martin said. “Why can’t I use baskets to start my own business? Why can’t I do what I love? You know, turn that passion into income.”
Since childhood, Martin said she has been fascinated by the traditional mountain craft of basket weaving. Shortly after returning to Letcher County, Martin’s mother, Pat Martin Bradley, a well-known name among Appalachian artists having served as executive director of the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg, gave her two basket kits for her birthday. According to Martin, she just took off from there, and in January of this year, she founded Heritage Basket Company.
Her baskets, she said, are made in the Scotch-Irish wicker weave style.
“I typically use oak,” Martin said. “It’s oak reed. A lot of people use ash, but I find that oak will last for the long haul. The big thing for me is that my baskets are not just pretty. They’re very utilitarian. You can use them easily and not worry about damaging them.”
Martin said she uses all-natural stains and dyes, dyeing the reed herself. She also designs her own patterns, making her baskets unique and unable to be purchased anywhere else. Certified as Kentucky Proud and Appalachia Proud, Martin’s baskets are made in Kentucky from materials produced in the state.
“I love making baskets,” Martin said. “I love the look on people’s faces when they see them and know that they’re using them, that they’re not just sitting up on a shelf somewhere.”
The time it takes to make a basket varies, she said. Some of them take only a handful of hours, but some, she said, like her signature basket (aptly named Crystal’s Basket, which was made in memory of her deceased brother), are works of endurance, requiring 27 hours to complete.
Martin indicated that each basket is truly a labor of love, a work of passionate, disciplined art. While the baskets have individual, specific names, such as the Mulberry Market Basket, Basket and Bows, and the Harvest Round Centerpiece, buyers customize their basket.
“Most of my business is done through online orders,” said Martin. “You don’t just click one and that’s what you get. You pick the color, you pick if you want a solid wooden base, a woven base, if you want a handle or not a handle, the size of the basket that you want. So, every single basket is unique.”
Each basket comes with a set of care instructions. If a piece of the reed breaks or starts to change color, Martin said the basket can be returned to her to be fixed for free.
Martin has shipped baskets all over the country, as far away as Arizona and Hawaii. Her website has been viewed in 25 countries, she said, which, according to her website, has prompted her to make international shipping available.
“I think it’s important to let people know that they can take their passions, their crafts and turn them into a business,” Martin said. “And I’m just a small-town girl from Whitesburg, you know. If I can do it, anybody can.”
What makes the work worthwhile, Martin said, is knowing that she’s making something that is still going to be here even after she is gone.
Martin’s impressive work has caught the attention of Artistically Speaking, a television program out of Whitesburg that seeks to raise awareness about local and area artists. Martin said she will film the episode on Thursday, August 14, and expects the show to air on Saturday, August 16. The show can be viewed on TVS Cable or Intermountain Cable. TVS Cable is in part of Perry, Leslie, Knott, Letcher, and Breathitt counties. For specific channel listings, contact your provider.
Locally, Martin’s baskets can be purchased at John B. Adams Store in Isom, but other locations are listed on her website.
To purchase a basket by Crystal Martin, please visit www.heritagebasketcompany.com or find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/heritagebasketcompany.
SKED’s Entrepreneurial Smarts Training class will be offered in Whitesburg, beginning on October 9. More information can be found at www.southeastkentucky.com.
Mindy Miller can be reached at 606-436-5771 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.