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Crafting the Roads and History of New Hampshire

Andrea Gross | Jul 1, 2013, 6 a.m.

Rhonda Besaw carefully places three small pouches on her dining room table. They are meticulously adorned with tiny, very tiny, beads. One has three flowers, another has a geometric design, and the third—my favorite—has sparkles of light that swirl across a black background. Rhonda explains that the sparkles represent her people as they cross over the Milky Way to a place where they will be reborn.

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Award-winning artist Rhonda Besaw uses beads to tell stories of her people.

Rhonda’s people are the Abenaki, a tribe that has lived in southern Quebec and northern New England since before the beginning of oral history. Yet, many people are unfamiliar with their culture and contributions.

Rhonda, an award-winning Native artist whose work is regularly shown in galleries throughout the Northeast, is on a mission to change this. “The Abenaki are still here,” she says. “Through these beads, I hope to share the story of our survival.”

My husband and I are visiting Rhonda in her home, which is in a small village in the north woods of New Hampshire. The drive took us through the Notch, an area where you can’t communicate by cell phone but where you can—if you’re good at this sort of thing—talk with moose and bear. We were, in all respects, on a “road less traveled,” and this, for us, is part of the joy of “crafting,” a word that we coined more than 20 years ago.

Crafting is the art of getting to know a place—its history, its traditions, its people—through its handmade objects. New Hampshire is the perfect place for this type of travel. In 1932 it became the first state to officially support its artists by establishing The League of New Hampshire Arts and Crafts, and the state’s craft tradition—which includes Native, Colonial, Shaker and contemporary work—is among the nation’s finest.

Rhonda’s work includes beaded bags, moccasins, leggings and drool-worthy necklaces and earrings. Her images are not reproductions of traditional designs but rather interpretations of ancient themes. In this way she passes on not only stories of her ancestors, but also their spirit.

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Jon Gibson uses an old lathe to make pewter vessels in the traditional way.

Our quest to glimpse New Hampshire’s colonial heritage takes us to Hillsborough Center, a town that is New England to its core, right down to the white steepled church and stacked stone fences. Jon Gibson, a second-generation pewterer, greets us with a smile. “I’ll show you the old schoolhouse, and then we’ll go into my studio,” he says. This is how we come to spend the morning—in a 200-year-old schoolhouse as well as in an equally old post-and-beam barn—all the while learning about a craft that was essential to the daily life of the early settlers.

I pick up a porringer and admire its decorative handle. “Paul Revere worked in silver rather than pewter, but he made some of the most famous colonial porringers,” says Gibson. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has in its collection several pieces made by Paul Revere as well as a few items made by Jon Gibson, a fact of which Gibson is rightfully proud. Some of his pieces—which include bowls, plates, mugs, tankards and candle holders—are cast, some are hammered and some are spun on an antique lathe.

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