Revitalizing an ancient craft

One kibbutz woman has singlehandedly kept the almost extinct craft of making Corn Dollies, or straw weaving alive.

corn dollies 88 co298 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
corn dollies 88 co298
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
The stairwell walls leading to Ronit Agiv's second-floor apartment are decorated with intricate works of an almost extinct ancient craft, that of making Corn Dollies, or straw weaving. These days it's seen as a highly unusual art form, but the creators of Corn Dollies and straw weavers of old were not artistic merely for the sake of art. They engaged in painstakingly creating the tools necessary for ancient rites practiced by farming communities in diverse corners of the world such as Mexico, Egypt, Scandinavia and the British Isles. On the stairs to Agiv's kibbutz apartment one passes woven wheat creations she has nimbly created based on ancient designs from Wales, Mexico and regions closer to her kibbutz home. Elegant stalks of wheat - the grain still firmly embedded in their natural habitat and fringed by fine wheat whiskers - have been plaited or woven into dinner plate-sized creations that are both eye-catching and intriguing. One cannot but wonder how such a craft began. Given the natural beauty of wheat and humankind's dependency on it for the basic food staple, bread, farming communities of long bygone days weaved stalks into designs that depicted their way of life, and Corn Dollies, figurines to be dutifully worshipped to ensure a continued food supply. Such an important part of ancient farmers' traditional beliefs, passed down from their sickle-wielding forefathers, disappeared as modern agricultural methods pushed them aside - and were almost forgotten. The designs of Corn Dollies and other styles of straw weaving are extremely diverse in structural appearance. The one common denominator to be found in their past histories - whether the Corazon of Mexico, Welsh fans or North African and Egyptian Arabic cages - is that their creators and those who worshipped the finished images were simple farmers who connected the success of their hard labor in the fields with the wishes of the harvest spirit who lived in the grain. They believed that as they cut down their wheat crop, the spirit would lodge itself in the grain of the last sheaf of wheat left standing in the field. That particular bundle would be carefully cut and with the agile spirit firmly ensconced deep within, and the sheaf plaited into a talisman to be carefully cared for during the winter months as the spirit rested out of harm's way. Come spring, the seeds were removed from the well rested talisman, mixed in with others and sown in the freshly tilled soil. Ancient farming communities believed that in this way, the spirit and vital force from the previous year went forth to help their new crop be a successful one. "Harvest figures were being made long after the belief in their spiritual powers over the crop receded. Somewhere along the line they became tokens of love and good fortune, and even talismans of fertility," explains Agiv, 45, who began wheat weaving seriously while living in Tel Aviv. She is the granddaughter of founder members of Mishmar HaEmek, the kibbutz where she was born and lived until the age of 23. In the late l980s she lived in Britain, studied English in Cambridge and attended the Epsom School of Theatre Arts. Returning to Israel, she lived for over a decade in Tel Aviv before returning to the kibbutz where she now lives with her husband Rafi and sons Liam, 9, and Adam, 3. "Even though I now know there are Corn Dolly and wheat weavers continuing this almost extinct craft in England, during the time I was there I don't recall having seen anything of the nature that I became so involved in here in Israel," says Agiv, carefully handling some golf ball-sized lifelike mice she had expertly manipulated out of straw. "This design is from Mexico and such creations were made as toys for children," she continues, as Adam gingerly arranges three or four straw mice on his trouser leg. Minutes previously, he was playing with his real life hamster in another corner of the room. Over the years, Agiv has met women in Israel who remember from their childhood seeing creations woven from wheat similar to those she now creates. "One lady said that until the l960s such work was seen in the area of Wadi Ara. Another remembered it from the village of Ghajar on the northern border," she recalls. Agiv is basically self-taught, using a trial-and-error method of following instructions in craft books to create the intricate designs she saw illustrated in the manuals. While living in Tel Aviv, she worked for the Steimatzky book company, starting in sales and gradually working her way up to applying her creative talents by designing book exhibitions, window displays and special events where books were displayed in the most eye-catching way. "Before I left the kibbutz I was part of a small team of members who made up the Decorations Committee - it was always difficult to explain to city folk what that meant. Basically we would design and create the decorations for kibbutz festivals and cultural events," adds Agiv, who these days works in a care center for the elderly members of her kibbutz. While in Tel Aviv and once she had mastered the art of straw weaving, she felt confident enough in her abilities and knowledge of the ancient craft to begin creating and selling her work. Clients included the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, Erez Lechem in Herzliya, Sdot Israel at Kerem Maharal and other well-known businesses. At a later stage she even ran a short course in the basics of the art from her Tel Aviv home. "As some of my students became involved in the art form and learned more about the background of the craft, I began to get enquiries from women with problems of infertility and various health ailments," says Agiv with a broad smile. Her delicately formed creations have been featured in quality fine arts and crafts - and even architecture - journals in Israel and abroad. After photographs of her work appeared in a German language catalogue of fine art works published in Austria, some of her creations were bought by German and Danish collectors. In some countries - notably Britain and some areas of the US - there has been a quiet revival of the ancient art form of Corn Dollies, with festivals gaining popularity over recent decades. Books on folklore and country crafts have also given greater focus to what had been viewed a dying craft. With spirits such as Ronit Agiv, a third generation kibbutznik who nowadays lives a stones throw from her community's fields of corn and wheat, it would seem that a talisman from bygone days has succeeded in revitalizing an ancient craft in modern times.