To many Southerners, kudzu is a pesky intruder. But to Asheville, North Carolina–based Matt Tommey, the leafy vine is something quite different: a self-replenishing supply for his art.
For the sculptural basketry artist, necessity was not the mother of invention—abundance was. When a book on basket weaving caught Tommey’s eye as a student at the University of Georgia, he discovered he had plenty of material to practice with in the backyard of his apartment. Now, twenty-three years later, the Columbus, Georgia, native has grown a career from the Japanese import. “Kudzu has become my signature material,” Tommey says. “It’s plentiful, super strong, very versatile, and can be stored and reconstituted easily when it’s time to weave.”
Tommey’s kudzu baskets take many forms. Some are grouped with driftwood, clay, honeysuckle, and even wasp’s nests to create decorative wall hangings or adornments for fireplace mantles. Others may be woven with recycled copper filaments into loose, curvy tabletop pieces. “People have said my work looks like it’s found more than created, and that’s very fulfilling,” he says.
“Kudzu is the kind of vine that can give you a very fine, tailored look or a very organic, rustic look,” Tommey says. Either way, his woven work earned him a spot among ten finalists in the crafts category of Martha Stewart’s American Made contest two years ago. And in 2010, he was recognized as an “American Artist Under 40” by the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery.
Though Tommey’s inspiration comes from the outdoors, teaching is another crucial part of his creative practice. Several times a year, he leads weekend-long basket-weaving workshops in his Asheville studio. “I enjoy the interaction, the ‘Aha!’ moments, and the energy that students bring to the classroom,” Tommey says. “I can’t imagine ever not teaching in some capacity.”
It feeds his art, after all, just as Southern soil nurtures his favorite medium. “My love for nature—and, in particular, the Southern landscape—continues to inform my work,” Tommey says, “and my sense of beauty.”