When people ask Passamaquoddy weaver Jeremy Frey what he does for a living, he simply says, “I make baskets,” and leaves the rest to their imagination. But to him, basket making is much more than a profession. It’s a calling. Eight generations of family and cultural history that stretches back for hundreds of years guides every strand of ash he weaves.

Making baskets of sweet grass and wood is one of the oldest art forms of North America, yet in the 90 years of the Santa Fe Indian Market — the largest Indian art festival in the nation — a basket maker had never earned the festival’s top honors, the most prestigious award in the native arts world. That is until this year, when Frey traveled to New Mexico in August and entered a striking 18-inch-tall ash basket into the competition.

It won “Best of Show.”

“A lot of dreams have come true this year,” said Frey as he sat in his studio in Princeton, Maine Tuesday with his newest ash basket half-complete in his lap. The basket was a squat traditional shape, modeled after the sea urchins that dwell in the frigid water off Maine’s rocky coast. The white, purple and green strips of black ash curled around the handmade wooden mold as he weaved them together with thinner strips of ash.

“I never had a feeling like that,” said Frey regarding the award. “I felt like I’d won an Oscar. It put me into a group of artists that I never dreamed I’d be in.”

Santa Fe Indian Market, sponsored by the South Western Association for Indian Arts, covers 14 city blocks in the heart of the city’s downtown. More than 1,000 artists from more than 100 federally recognized tribes and First Nations’ Tribes exhibit and sell their art and crafts at the event, which attracts approximately 100,000 visitors from all over the world.

For the competition, artwork is grouped in categories: jewelry, pottery, sculpture, textiles, paintings, woodcarvings (kachinas), beadwork, baskets and diverse arts (which encompass a variety of items including drums, bows and arrows and cradle boards). Prizes are given within each category, but only one artist receives the honor of “Best of Show.”

Frey first attended the market in 2009 as a demonstrator with the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on preserving and extending the art of basket making within the state’s Native American community — the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes. In 2010, he submitted his work for the first time for competition and won two blue ribbons.

This year, Frey’s basket, a vessel of tightly woven black ash harvested from the Maine forest, stole the show. Though the piece is contemporary, it echoes the creations of master basket makers who came before him. The basket’s ash points remind tribal members of the works of Silvia Gabriel, the basket maker who taught Frey’s mother, Gal, who in turn, taught Frey.

Bruce Bernstein, executive director of the SWAIA said that he was “entranced by the basket’s modernity and ancient roots.”

“When someone in our group is honored, we are all honored,” said Theresa Secord, founding member and executive director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance. “All the artists I know, and I know the majority of basket makers in the market, were really happy about it.”

The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance formed in 1993 with 55 founding members. The average age of membership was 63. For nearly two decades, they’ve worked to provide opportunities for the next generation of basket makers through apprenticeships and workshops. Today, their number has grown to 150 members with an average age of 40.

“I still look to the elders, many of whom are still with us, who practiced quietly and kept these traditions alive so people like [Frey] could come along,” said Secord, who has been a basket maker for 23 years. “They weaved in the 60s and 70s, when virtually nobody [was] buying baskets … They must be looking down on us so proud.”

“It’s all we have left,” said Frey, who teaches basket making with his mother. “Our [native] language is in hurting condition. I’d like to still have something left for our people.”

Frey lives in Passamoquoddy Indian Township in Princeton with his fiancee, Ganessa Bryant, and two sons, 6-year-old Damien and 2-year-old Gavin. It was his mother who taught him the principles of basket making after he turned 22, when Frey said he decided to free himself of a drug addiction and restaurant work to focus his energy on what he has loved since he was a young boy — creating art.

“Sometimes, it takes a lifetime for someone to master a traditional art form,” said Secord. “When I met him 10 years ago, I hired him out of a substance abuse program out of his tribe. That’s what is really compelling. He is someone who has risen above poverty and all these issues on a very rural Indian reservation on the easternmost point of the continent to be considered among the greatest Native American artists in the country.”

It only took Frey a few days to work through the frustration of snapping strips of ash to become comfortable with the craft and start making baskets that were recognizably his — with precise, intricate, tight weaves. Since then, he has struggled to make a living and has created upwards of 1,000 baskets.

“It felt a lot of the time that it was a fight, battling not having food or an income for loans. To be recognized nationally is a dream come true,” said Frey.

In the past few years, things have improved and his baskets, ranging in price from $350 to $15,000, have sold as fast as he can make them.

“I’m not really sure how to say it. I do what I love, and I can live doing it,” he said.

This has been a big year for Frey. In addition to winning in Santa Fe, he also won “Best of Show” at the 53rd annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market in March in Phoenix, Ariz. As the second largest Indian arts market in the U.S., the market consists of 700 Native American artists and draws nearly 20,000 visitors.

The only other artist to win both festivals in the same year is Hopi potter Jacob Koopee.

“I’m trying to do cutting-edge traditional,” said Frey. “I don’t want to go so far away from what my tribe has given me for an art form.”

Fancy baskets, as they are traditionally called, are made with special weaves and shapes that are less practical than sturdy, traditional utility baskets. In the 1800s, Maine Indians made fancy baskets to sell to European rusticators who vacationed at places such as Mount Desert Island. They modified the baskets to hold things such as gloves, pipes, yarn and umbrellas.

From the beginning, Frey’s goal has been to stand out from other weavers in participating in the shows. The most distinctive characteristic of his artwork is that each basket has an extremely fine-woven, intricate bottom, when traditionally the bottom is the part of the basket that basket makers spend the least time on, considering it is usually not visible.

“He does extraordinary things with rather ordinary weaving materials — wood, bark and grass,” said Secord. “He was the first person I ever saw who braided actual wood.”

Frey’s trip to Hawaii in 2007, funded by the Ford Foundation, influenced detail in his traditional designs. For example, he now models basket bases and rings after Hawaiian woven grass bracelets.

“I sell the work, not the material,” said Frey.

Yet he insists on harvesting all of his own material, even the porcupine quills he inlays into birch bark lids. Harvesting quills is his least favorite part of the job. He drives around in his truck searching for fresh road kill “no more than a day old,” Frey explained as he opened a box filled with fresh quills tangled in the animal’s wiry hair.

“I harvest all my own materials because I don’t want someone else saying they do my work, even if it’s just cutting my tree down,” said Frey. “I don’t mind getting dirty and wet. It’s nice finding that perfect tree.”

In the spring, when sap is flowing and bark is loose, Frey walks the woods and searches for the perfect ash trees for his next batch of baskets.

He then pounds every inch of the log with the blunt side of an axe until the growth rings peel away in long strips. They’re soaked in his studio sink and split over an A-frame ash splitter twice so the soft, milky white center of each growth ring is stripped away — premium basketry material.

He uses traditional tools: bladed tools called gauges to divide the strips into thinner sections, a sharp knife and, most importantly, his teeth to snap the strips of ash as he weaves.

Though Frey will work with colored dyes, such as red for traditional strawberry baskets and brown for traditional acorn baskets, he prefers to work with natural ash (nearly white) and black dyes. The contrast highlights the basket’s contours and detailed patterns.

Though he has joked that he’ll never enter the Santa Fe Indian Market competition again, he plans to keep competing and developing new techniques and basket forms. Frey noted that doll maker Jamie Okuma is the only Indian artist to win “Best of Show” twice at the Santa Fe market — “so far.”

“I’m putting basketry on the map,” he said. “I love that I do a traditional art form. I love that it connects me to my people — to who I am. Being successful at it helps a lot, but I’d still love it even so. You have to value what you’re doing.”

To see Frey’s most recent work, visit “Transcending Traditions: The Next Generation and Maine Indian Basketry,” which opens Sept. 24 at the Hudson Museum at the Collins Center of the Arts on the University of Maine campus in Orono. The exhibit of next generation Maine Indian basket makers is supported by a grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. For information on the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, call 859-9722, visit maineindianbaskets.org, or meet some of the members in person the Common Ground Country Fair Sept. 23-25 in Unity.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...