José Formoso Reyes (1902-1980)

Offered August 22nd in two lots: Rare Form Nantucket Friendship Basket with woven top and braided leather strap, signed upon the base “Made in Nantucket, José Formoso Reyes”. Rare Form Nantucket Cocktail Basket with woven top and handle, signed upon the base “Made in Nantucket, José Formoso Reyes”

It was Clinton Mitchell Ray who mentored José Formoso Reyes’ early forays into Nantucket basket making. “Mitchy” was a third generation weaver held in especially high regard. While Mitchy’s grandfather is credited with having woven the first covered Nantucket Lightship basket, it was José Reyes who invented and perfected the Nantucket Friendship basket purse as we know it today.
Born in Luzon, Philippines during the early days of US Colonialism, José Formoso Reyes’ educational opportunity was limited by the rural isolation of his village in a then-developing country. His father was self taught, the Bible having been his workbook; and children of the village were offered only a second grade education. Of like mind with regard to the value of an education, José and his father were equally determined. The younger man’s odyssey began in Portland, OR, where José graduated high school, and then earned a degree in Education at Reed College. The first Asian to graduate from Reed, in 1932, Reyes was awarded a scholarship to Harvard, where he received a Masters Degree in Education.

Reyes married Elizabeth (Betty) Ham, the daughter of a New England family. The couple first met in Portland, and were later reunited in Cambridge. Together they set out for the Philippines, intent on establishing Reyes’ teaching career there. Though their children were born in the Philippines, by 1945 the Asia Pacific Wars forced a hasty retreat back to the US. Ham’s parents offered the weary family a respite in Nantucket. They never left.

Soon enough, a small homestead on York Street, in Nantucket’s New Guinea neighborhood (in/around Five Corners) provided the family basic shelter, but in 1945, for foreign born Reyes, a teaching position in the public schools was more difficult to attain. So, Reyes painted houses and did what else he could, while his wife, a nurse, took occasional shifts at the hospital, and together with her children, picked berries to put up jams and jellies to pay the bills.

During his 20 years in Luzon, Reyes had come to appreciate fine craftsmanship. Observing the brisk trade in mold-woven baskets on Nantucket, he determined to learn the craft. By 1948, he’d invented lids fashioned in the same manner as the baskets themselves: cane weavers fixed into a grooved wooden plate that had been bolted to a mold, with staves – or ribs – splayed out around it, as a framework for the weavers. A hardwood rim mirrored the rim on the basket; the lid affixed with cane-wrapped leather loops. The first plates he designed for the lids were simple manifestations that mirrored the hardwood bases. Next came something more exotic: ebony. Eventually, the addition of ivory whales, shells or gulls carved in relief and centered on the plate added interest – and status – to the various baskets. Quite suddenly, Reyes’ uniquely stylish Friendship Baskets were attracting the attention of Nantucket’s ladies and visitors alike. Wait lists for a José Reyes Friendship basket grew from months to years, as his practical invention evolved from becoming locally fashionable to a bona fide cottage industry.

José Formoso Reyes engaged in his community with characteristic vigor. A Rotarian, a member of the Congregational Church Choir, a Mason, Scout leader, and PTA member, José Reyes gave 100 percent to every endeavor.

In tribute, his family preserved, and donated his working studio to the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum, where it has been installed exactly as it was.

by Carolyn Walsh ( ref: Frances Ruley Karttunen, “The Other Islanders, people who pulled Nantucket’s oars”, Spinner Publications; David Wood, “Historic Nantucket” VOL 43 #1, Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum)

Recent Examples at Auction