Needles and Grass | Mingei International Museum
Two large baskets sitting on top of a dresser.
Image: Two large baskets sitting on top of a dresser.

"I just forgot about everything else when I was creating a Torrey Pine vessel." - Francina Prince

The exhibition Needles and Grass: The Coiled Vessels of Francina and Neil Prince showcases the work of Francina and Neil Prince, a talented couple from Leucadia, California. Now retired, for over 30 years they created unique vessels using Torrey Pine needles, inspired by the natural beauty of San Diego's landscape. This mini-retrospective on the Museum’s Commons Level explores their collaboration, combining Francina's creativity and Neil's engineering skills. The couple spent countless hours together crafting these coiled Torrey Pine needle vessels, appreciating the long structures and abundance of these needles. Over the years their experiments led them to play with different designs and techniques, and even different mediums, such as Pacific tidal seagrass. This exhibition is in conjunction with the exhibition Over/Under: Woven Craft at Mingei, celebrating diverse forms, shapes, and mediums of woven objects.

How did you two meet and start collaborating?

Neil: We met at General Atomic. We got into art-making when Fran took a course.

Francina: Yes. I took a course from a woman in Solana Beach who was teaching various basketry techniques, after I had requested a layoff at General Atomic. I needed time off to be with my young children, and also wanted to do something else. After working and practicing for a while, we started doing shows. Neil was doing photography of my work at the time, which helped increase interest in what I was doing.

Why use Torrey Pine needles?

Francina: I’ve also used other natural fibers around the area such as leaves, roots, and such. But the Torrey Pine was something that truly captured me, I felt a closeness to it. I just forgot about everything else when I was creating a Torrey Pine vessel.

Neil: The Torrey Pine is also an icon. It defines San Diego, but the needles are just raked up and thrown away. These long beautiful needles, the rarest of pine needles, gave us the opportunity to create a vessel.

It wasn’t easy though. We had to learn the techniques that would allow us to create a strong vessel. It was severely challenging because the material is very brittle and it depends on how much moisture is in the air and other climate factors. It was a learning experience and an engineering challenge. But it was fun.

Did you always create the objects with the idea that they were vessels not to be utilized?

Neil: I don't want to use art because that gets into all kinds of other connotations, but it was just to create something different. We were using materials in a completely new way and preserving them, making them into beautiful objects in themselves.

What guided your decisions to use them in their natural color versus painting them?

Francina: Well, initially they were just all-natural needles, but then after you do natural needles for a chunk of time, you look for variances. And we've started dyeing the needles. And then as you can see by the pieces that you have in the Museum’s collection that were donated, the dyes faded – so we decided to paint over the dyes to keep the original intent more lasting.

I’ve noticed that across the decades you've been drawn to specific colors or the density in the color. Could you speak a little bit about that?

Francina: For a design element, and also when you are working for 30 years, you want to try different ideas. We had an opportunity to try to create new concepts.

So what are some of the concepts that you played with?

Neil: Well, we would take an idea. Some of them are called galaxies, and some of them are called comets. I was into astronomy and took that as an idea and used it to create a vessel that had that feeling to it.

Francina: More like a color explosion,

Neil: Yes, color explosion or the movement.

What’s your biggest takeaway after creating vessels for over 30 years?

Francina: Patience. Meditation. Focus. An appreciation of the fiber.

Neil: Order and perseverance.

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