Mattapoisett basket maker Gladys Heuberger Sherman Ellis (1916-2011) designed and created the Mattapoisett Basket, a unique regional form of the Nantucket Basket. An accomplished scrimshaw artist and Nantucket basket maker, she also taught this artistry to many others. In 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston acquired a 1984 Gladys Ellis Mattaposett Basket, viewable on the Museum’s website.
Mattapoisett basket maker Gladys Heuberger Sherman Ellis (1916-2011) designed and created the Mattapoisett Basket, a unique regional form of the Nantucket Basket.
Born in New Bedford, Gladys was one of 10 children of Helmuth Heuberger, a German immigrant, and Ellen (Fowler) Heuberger, an English immigrant. A lifelong resident of Mattapoisett, Gladys was the first in her family to graduate from high school, as her four older brothers left school to work in the local mills. She graduated from Fairhaven High School after a teacher advocated for her to remain in school. She had dreamed of attending Pratt Institute in New York after high school, but there was no money and romance was in the air. Gladys married Russell H. Sherman, also of Mattapoisett. She was a self-taught artist, seamstress, needle worker, upholsterer, furniture refinisher, scrimshander and basket maker.
As she became an accomplished scrimshaw artist and Nantucket Basket maker, Gladys started to think about a new way to combine her scrimshaw artistry with her basketry techniques. She coiled the long needles of southern pine with raffia and added carved ivory panels to create the Mattapoisett Basket. The process included wrapping the raffia around a metal form to create exterior detailing with a lace effect. Typically, the purse was an oval basket with a hinged clam-shell style top attached with an ivory hinge and an ivory closure at center front, with a handle attached at sides with ivory bolts, as shown in these images of a Mattapoisett Basket owned by Carole Clifford, daughter of Gladys:
In another Mattapoisett Basket made by Gladys for Carole, Gladys used scrimshaw to depict home and family to remind her daughter of her childhood. The family residence was carved on the purse’s top scrimshaw panel and popular Mattapoisett landmarks were engraved on its side panels, as shown:
For decades, Gladys taught basket making in her home at 87 North Street, through adult education classes and also at conferences. Classes at her home filled up quickly, so there were long waiting lists. Gladys also taught for over 25 years in the adult education program at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School. She was a faculty member at the annual Stowe Basketry Festival in Vermont. Gladys became known as a patient teacher who imparted an eye for detail and an enthusiasm for complex design. A perfectionist, she led her students to their own perfection.
Gladys was selected for inclusion in Early American Life magazine’s Directory of Traditional American Crafts as one of the best artisans in the United States. In 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston acquired a 1984 Gladys Ellis Mattapoisett Basket, viewable on the Museum’s website.
Throughout her life, Gladys held varied jobs and other interests. She packed frozen fish, spray painted toys, and worked in childcare. She was a lifelong member of the Mattapoisett Congregational Church, where she served as a deaconess, choir member and advisor to the youth group. She was a member of the Mattapoisett Women’s Club, Couple’s Club and the Ladies Guild. She was also a long time Brownie and Girl Scout leader.
Gladys passed away on January 9, 2011 at the age of 94. Survivors include two daughters, Anne Lima and Carole Clifford. Her funeral service was held at the Mattapoisett Congregational Church and she is buried in Cushing Cemetery.
Carole Clifford and Ann O’Leary
- Clifford, Carole. “Fwd: Mattapoisett Pocketbook.” Received by Ann O’Leary, 26 Sept. 2019.
- Ellis, Gladys. “Basket.” Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 28 Jan. 2015, https://collections.mfa.org/objects/612263.
- “Gladys Ellis.” Currentobituary.com, 9 Jan. 2011, https://www.currentobituary.com/obit/89153.
- Lawrence, Martha. Scrimshaw: The Whaler’s Legacy. Schiffer, 1997.
- Newell, Marilou. “The Mattapoisett Purse.” The Wanderer, 17 July 2016, https://www.wanderer.com/features/the-mattapoisett-purse/.
- Nuss, Susi. “In Memoriam – Gladys Ellis.” Basketmakers, 14 Jan. 2011, http://www.basketmakers.info/2011/01/in-memorium-gladys-ellis.html.