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Local artist receives state honor
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Continuing their work at the Tennessee Residence, the Tennessee Arts Commission is working with First Lady Crissy Haslam in placing artwork from Tennessee artists in Conservation Hall. The commission recently added the work of 21 artists, with the selection ranging from paintings to three-dimensional sculptures to textiles.
Warren County resident 93-year-old Mary Jane Prater is included on that list of artists. One of her white oak baskets is included with the unique works of artists from across the state.
“I think it’s an honor that they wanted one of my baskets,” said Prater. “It’s great to be thought of in your old age. I probably won’t go to see the exhibit.”
The active mother, grandmother and great-grandmother stills makes baskets, but not nearly as many as she used to. She recalls the beginning of her basketmaking career, when she would take the leftover materials from the family’s chairmaking business and turn them into baskets.
“We used to make the baskets and swap them out with the T.O. Muncey Store for stuff we needed,” said Prater.
She recalls going into the woods and cutting oak strips from trees for the baskets, which is no easy task. Once the construction is started, the strips need to stay moist for easy handling.
“I still do some baskets, but mostly in the summer months, cause it’s too cold to handle the wet strips in the winter,” said Prater. “Not many people make baskets now, ’cause they say it’s too hard. I never thought it was that hard, but I learned young.”
Prater has been making baskets almost 80 years, has helped teach the art to others, and has baskets displayed in several locations across the state.
She estimates it takes her about a week to make one basket, and finds the best location for her is between her kitchen and living room.
“I sit here and work, so I can watch the television as I work,” said Prater with a laugh.
When she first started, she said she would sell them for as little as 25 cents and says the highest one has sold for $280, with that one going overseas with the customer.
Prater doesn’t think she has any special talents, and says anyone can make them if they are willing to work hard to learn.
“I will make some more, because my goal in life is to live to be 100,” says Prater.
The 14,000-square-foot meeting and banquet facility built under the front lawn of the Tennessee Residence is used for state receptions and dinners and seats up to 160 people.
With the desire to include more work by Tennessee artists, the first lady turned to the Tennessee Arts Commission. The commission had previously worked with former First Lady Andrea Conte on several projects at the residence.
“Bill and I are thrilled to feature such diverse and talented Tennessee artists,” said Mrs. Haslam. “We will continue to invite guests to the Tennessee residence to view and enjoy these beautiful pieces of artwork.”
“There were several exceptional pieces of art already placed at Conservation Hall, but the first lady wanted to enhance the space with additional work,” said Julie Horn director of visual arts, craft and media. “The idea was to warm-up the facility a bit with additional art, and we wanted to have more Tennessee artists represented.”
The public can now take a tour through the facility, so the commission has been involved in docent training and providing educational materials and information about the artwork displayed. The docents volunteer their time.
Anyone can tour the facility, after first registering for a tour on the first lady’s website:
 “It’s a pleasure to continue our work at the Tennessee Residence, and it’s certainly gratifying to see Tennessee’s exceptional artists represented there,” added Horn.