CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Parkersburg basket maker Aaron Yakim received a $50,000 unrestricted grant from the artist advocacy group United States Artists in an awards ceremony Monday in Los Angeles.The money will provide a cushion for the artist and his partner, Cindy Taylor, allowing them to create new designs and to work on current projects without worrying about paying bills."It's not always been real easy making and selling baskets for a living," Yakim said from his Cypress Street studio recently. The partners will use some of the award money to make improvements to their workshop.United States Artists is a grant-making artist-advocacy organization dedicated to supporting America's artists working across diverse disciplines. The organization launched in September 2005 with $22 million in seed funding provided by a coalition of leading foundations -- Ford, Rockefeller, Prudential and Rasmuson. This initial investment enabled the organization to pilot the USA Fellows program, awarding unrestricted $50,000 grants to 50 artists each year.Yakim said he was nominated anonymously."I'm not sure who nominated me, but I've had my work in major galleries. I've been doing this for 30 years, so my name is out there," he said.That was in March, and he sent images of his current works to United States Artists."I then had to write essays about what I've been doing, how I got to where I am, what the prize would mean to me," Yakim explained. That was in July, and in October, he got the news that he had won."It's been hard not to tell anyone the news," Taylor said with a laugh.The two have been partners for 18 years, making baskets together for about 17 of those years.Yakim, a native of Pennsylvania, moved to Doddridge County in the '70s, where he met fifth-generation basket maker Oral "Nick" Nicholson."This guy was going out in the woods with a hatchet, coming back with a basket," Yakim said. "I never had much formal training, but I worked with him on and off for three to four years. I took a three-day class from him at New Fort Salem [part of Salem College] and then I visited him a couple times a month."It took me about seven years to figure out what I was doing."When Nicholson retired, Yakim took over the basket-making classes at New Fort Salem.Yakim and Taylor create the rib and split baskets directly from white oak using hand tools. Each basket is one-of-a-kind, signed, numbered and dated. Materials are harvested from a local forest. They manipulate the thin strips of wood without the use of molds. Innovations include a framework design for creating a swing-handled rib basket and an interwoven hinged lid.Yakim and Taylor have exhibited or demonstrated their craft at The Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, The Designer Craftsmen Show of Philadelphia (King of Prussia), the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., The Bascom Center for the Visual Arts in Highlands, N.C., The National Folk Festival in Dayton, Ohio, and many other venues.They are members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild (www.southernhighlandguild.org), an outlet where potential buyers can find their works and find a schedule of their upcoming exhibits and demonstrations.The founding of Los Angeles-based United States Artists was prompted by the Urban Institute's 2003 study, "Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structures for U.S. Artists." This report found that while 96 percent of Americans appreciate the arts, only 27 percent believe that artists contribute to the good of society. United States Artists has invested $15 million in direct funding to artists through the program.The winners are selected through a competitive nomination, application and peer review process. The program supports artists at any stage in their careers -- emerging, mid-career and established artists are all eligible. Fellowships are awarded in eight categories: architecture and design, crafts and traditional arts, dance, literature, media, music, theater arts and visual arts. Nominees are invited to apply. Visit www.unitedstatesartists.org.Reach Sara Busse at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1249.