A descendent of the Gullah community of coastal South Carolina, Mary Jackson was born in 1945 in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Jackson learned the art of making baskets at the age of four from her mother and grandmother. Following chores, Jackson's family would gather to make bulrush and sweetgrass baskets, using skills brought to the United States by their West African ancestors. Sweetgrass, a plant named for the sweet smell of its reeds, is indigenous to the coastal lowlands of South Carolina. Developed originally as domestic and agricultural tools for cotton and rice production, sweetgrass baskets have traditionally taken utilitarian shapes such as storage containers and rice fanners.
Despite this tradition in her family, Jackson did not take up basketmaking as an adult until 1973 when she began producing baskets full-time and she began teaching her daughter the art form. Today, basketmaking is still a family affair -- her husband and son gather the sweetgrass from local marshes while her daughter provides administrative support. For the last seven years, she has been teaching her granddaughter the art of Sweetgrass basketmaking.
Jackson's intricately coiled baskets preserve the centuries-old craft of sweetgrass basketry and continue to push the tradition in new directions. While preserving the culture and history of her ancestors, Jackson infuses the art form with a contemporary aesthetic and expressiveness all her own. With masterful technique, Jackson translates practical designs into finely detailed, sculptural forms. Today, her baskets are owned by such noted individuals as Prince Charles and the Empress of Japan.
A founding member of the Mount Pleasant Sweetgrass Basket Makers' Association, Jackson also leads efforts to protect the threatened wetland habitats of sweetgrass and ensure continued local access to these resources. In 2008 was awarded the Environmental Stewardship Award of Achievement given by the South Carolina Aquarium.
Jackson's work has been exhibited at numerous institutions throughout the United States, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Museum of Arts and Design in New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of African American History in Detroit. Her stalwart devotion to the preservation of her unique cultural heritage has earned her numerous awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum for Women in the Arts (1993) and the first National Bronze Award of Arts Achievement and Excellence given by The International Council of Fine Arts Deans (2007). Jackson has also received a United States Artists Donnelley Fellowship and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. On December 19, 2009, Mary Jackson received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from South Carolina's College of Charleston.
Basket photos by Jack Alterman
NEA: Tell me about this art of basket weaving. Where did it originate?
Mary Jackson: The art of sweetgrass basketmaking originated from West Africa, along the Ivory Coast, in the Gambia area. As a matter of fact, we don't have records of exactly where it came from. But we know it comes from the West Coast of Africa from evidence that has been presented over many generations.
NEA: And this was an art form that was originally utilitarian.
Mary Jackson: Sweetgrass baskets were made for utilitarian use, yes. And the tradition maintains a beautiful basket for everyday living. They were always made beautiful as an object, but a functional object. It remains to be made in that manner even today, after 300 years of practicing it, in the area where I live right outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
NEA: Basket weaving came over to the United States with the slaves from Africa, correct?
Mary Jackson: This basketry came with my ancestors who were brought as slaves from Africa. They made baskets - this particular style of basketry - for their everyday living. They were brought here by plantation owners in the South because they had the skill of cultivating rice, and rice was the main industry that was produced by plantations. My ancestors had the skill of cultivating rice, and they also worked with cotton and indigo. But as an added bonus, the Africans had the skill of making baskets which were very useful to plantation owners because in the early plantation days they did not have containers to hold grain or to ship grain. And because the rice industry was a very large industry here, they needed these vessels. So my ancestors made these large baskets that were used by plantation owners to market their rice and grains all over the country. Men made agricultural baskets for fieldwork. As well, women made household baskets for everyday living. So my ancestors were regarded as valuable people because they had this particular skill that was an added bonus to the plantation owners. At the breakup of the plantation system, when families acquired land and started a new way of life, they kept this tradition going among family members because they wanted the future generations to have these baskets as evidence of why they came here and where they came from. So, that part of our history we will always have with us. And even today, it's an art form that we know came from Africa.
NEA: When did you learn to weave baskets?
Mary Jackson: My mother said I was around four years old when she started teaching me. During the summer when school was closed, this is what my siblings and cousins nearby and I learned to do. We all made baskets during the summer months. This was something to keep us busy as well as to learn the art. In the rural community where I grew up, there weren't any activities for us to do. Our families could not afford to send us to summer camp. We did not even know about summer camp.
NEA: Did they even have summer camps then?
Mary Jackson: It just didn't exist in the rural community where I grew up, a community called Mount Pleasant. Today it's now the sixth largest city in South Carolina. So it has grown by leaps and bounds and is very modern. But we practiced this every day, because it was a way of life for our families. So that's how I learned it. I learned all of the traditional designs from my mother and grandmother and mastered the basic technique. So I felt like I had learned everything there was about making baskets.
NEA: Did you like doing it when you were a kid?
Mary Jackson: Absolutely not. I did not like it because it was just hard work. We learned how to harvest the grasses for making these baskets which was very vital because there were specific grasses that were used for making these baskets. We had to learn how to go out in the marshes and the swamps to harvest the grasses. Traditionally the men harvest the grasses, but women also learned to harvest them as well because many families did not have a male person to harvest the grasses. But as children we're taught all aspect of making these baskets, and that was part of the learning process. After the grasses are dried to get specific colors, they're then ready for weaving into baskets. This was another difficult process because it's all hand done. The grasses are not wet or soaked to work with. They're woven dry. So this makes it kind of difficult on the hands. That was one of the real drawbacks in making baskets. It was never fun to me. But it was a chore that my family, my mother and father, insisted that we do. Because, again, it kept us busy. And then they felt it was important to learn the art form. They did not expect us to do this for the rest of our lives.
NEA: Was this something that you would all do together? Like all the kids in the family would sit down and weave together?
Mary Jackson: Yes. We did sit together under big trees in my grandmother's yard which was next door to where I live. And we would assemble during the daytime, after we finished our household chores. And then we would make baskets.
NEA: Would you compete?
Mary Jackson: We had competition among everyone to see who would make the prettiest basket by the end of the day or whose work was getting better and better. And so this was the fun process of it.
NEA: Weaving baskets at that age, do you think it taught you patience?
Mary Jackson: Oh, I don't know. Because I didn't even understand patience until I got older. But I can say very truthfully today that you have to have a lot of patience. You have to have a lot of interest in carrying on the tradition. It requires patience and dedication in order to make these baskets because it's a slow process. The technique is still the same. It hasn't changed. And so patience is one of the key things that you would have to have.
NEA: Now, you moved to New York City. When did that occur?
Mary Jackson: After I finished high school. I moved to New York to find work that was not available in the community where I lived and also so that I could maybe go to school and learn some professional skill. I lived in New York for about ten years. But I never stayed away from making baskets. When I came home for visits and vacation time, I would go and sit with my mother and we would make baskets with family members, because, again, it was still a way of life for us.
NEA: But then you came back to basketmaking in a fairly major way. What happened?
Mary Jackson: I moved back to Mount Pleasant in 1972, and I started interacting with family members in the community because basketmaking was still being practiced on a daily basis. It was always just a wonderful skill. And in communicating with many family members, they were concerned about the disappearance of their primary grass - which was sweetgrass - because of development that was taking place along the coast. These were areas where I went as a child, some of those areas now under development. They felt like we needed to find new sources for sweetgrass.
My first job was at a community center in the city of Charleston, working for an Episcopal diocese program, where the priest in charge knew everybody in the whole city of Charleston and possibly in the state. He was very helpful in putting me in touch with people who had property in the wetlands. We would get permission for the basketmakers to go and harvest grasses from these islands where it was slated for development but with the understanding that the future would be all condos and homes and it would then become off-limits for harvesting sweetgrass because the land was going to be developed. And that was a major part of my work, during that time, working in the tradition. I knew that, like many people, if we didn't find new sources, find a way to keep the grasses available for the basketmakers, then we would lose the tradition. And it became a serious threat.
So that was my early work in this, and I continue making baskets for my own personal collection. I started designing forms that were never done before. I learned all of the traditional designs from my mother and grandmother, but I wanted to introduce new forms that no one had ever thought about doing. And so this was something that was kind of new and exciting in my family before I really introduced it to the general public. And that's what I continue to do, make original designs that no one has ever done before.
NEA: When did you begin to sell your baskets?
Mary Jackson: In the early 1980s. Late '70s I should say, because I worked full-time for a department at the medical school here in Charleston. And people who saw examples of my work commissioned me to make baskets in the office and around the university. That was the early start of my selling my work. Then after I had my son, he was diagnosed for chronic asthma. I couldn't just leave him at day care, because he was always so sick. I gave up working so that I could be home with him and I wanted to do something that would help with the income. My husband worked full-time, but I wanted to have something that I could do. So I started making baskets that I would sell in the local city market here in Charleston where basketmakers historically sold baskets from the early 1940s along with vegetables and produce. It's a city market. And so I went there on weekends and carried the baskets that I'd made during the week at home. My husband was able to take care of our son, when he was off. And that was the beginning of my selling my work. That was around 1980.
During that time, my work was discovered by some art patrons as well as local people who live in Charleston and thought they were very unusual forms. And I started immediately getting commissions to do baskets that they had never seen before. So that kind of elevated the interest in my work as well as in the tradition, because it was bringing in new attention to the art form. I applied to the Smithsonian Craft Show which started in 1983. In '84, I applied. And I got an invitation to bring my work to Washington to sell at the Smithsonian Craft Show, and that was really the beginning of a national event for me. Now I was showing them nationally. Shortly after that, I was getting invitation to show for different museum shows, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I got an invitation to bring my work to Chicago. And so this was all something that I had never experienced before.
But it was exciting, because people had a real interest in what I was doing. And I felt too that the basketmakers in our local area would also enjoy some benefits from this because people would come to visit Charleston to see these baskets, people who had never been to Charleston before -- although many people were aware of [basketweaving] in the past because it was a tradition that has been practiced for many generations. Women sold baskets along the roadside in the community where I grew up along Highway 17. Travelers who traveled from Maine to Florida would see stands sitting on the roadside with baskets. And they were sold in the city market. My grandmothers used to sell their baskets, sometimes in the city market with their vegetables. So a whole new attention was coming to this art form. But I also wanted to bring my work into the art world where it had never been before.
NEA: What was that like for you to have your work seen nationally with the Smithsonian Craft Show and suddenly you're in museums in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago?
Mary Jackson: It was very exciting. I just got really, really excited. And my husband said to me, "Well, you know, if you want to travel with your work to show," he said, "it's a beautiful art. And what you're doing is very wonderful. I will take my leave time and just take days off so that I can accompany you." Because there was no way that I was going to travel all over the country by myself. So he shared that part of this experience with me. And it was very, very exciting to meet artists who were doing different kinds of work in all media. And to be a part of that was just really, really exciting for me.
NEA: What you've managed to do is keep alive a tradition of sweetgrass basket weaving but, at the same time, innovate it.
Mary Jackson: Yes. That was part of my goal to really bring it to a new level of interest. And I think it happened more quickly than I even imagine.
NEA: Well, you live on Johns Island. Tell me about it.
Mary Jackson: I moved to Johns Island only about seven years ago. I grew up in Mount Pleasant, and I've lived in different parts of the low country of South Carolina, west of Charleston, for several years. Finally my husband and I migrated to Johns Island just because we love the island. Johns Island is a very large island, and it's mostly rural. Some parts of it have developed into condos, and I live in a planned development. Island life still has a rural flavor to it, because many of the areas are not developed. So it has more wildlife. It's not secluded, because we have bridges and roads to the mainland. As a matter of fact, it wouldn't even seem like an island for someone who comes from another area or who's not familiar with Johns Island. But it's a beautiful island, and it's a very peaceful place to live and not so discovered yet. But I think it's almost to that point where it's going to be developed.
NEA: Now, your people are in the Gullah community.
Mary Jackson: Gullah is a language, an African language, that we speak, which has been preserved from our heritage. The language is spoken by descendents of Africans along the Sea Island coast of South Carolina and southern Georgia. I grew up in Mount Pleasant which is north of the city of Charleston and north of Johns Island where Gullah is spoken by descendents of Africans all the time, every day. But you can travel along the Sea Island coast south of Johns Island, and people speak the same language. So it's not necessarily a community, but it is a community where descendents of Africans live. But we speak this language called Gullah which is more like West African Creole.
NEA: Do you have a studio? Where do you weave?
Mary Jackson: I have a studio outside of my home, and it's about three miles away from where I live. I've always tried to practice my work or make my baskets in a setting where I would have uninterrupted time from the public and I can produce the kind of work that I like doing. This has been, from the very beginning, what I wanted to do. And my studio's not known to many people. People come in by appointment if they want to see my work, and then I work on commission for the public. If they would like to have some of my work, they come in by appointment. Or when I'm doing a show, like the Smithsonian Craft Show or like other shows across the country, I sit and make up work that I can bring to the show, that I can show different designs and sizes to the general public.
NEA: Here's a ridiculous question. But I'm really curious. About how long does it take you to make a basket?
Mary Jackson: Well, that's not a ridiculous question, and it's asked over and over and over again. And my answer is always still the same. I work with lots of pieces in progress. I'll start a whole collection of different designs, different sizes. And so I work a little at a time and back and forth on different baskets until I start completing something. But that's only my way of working. And in my studio, at any given time, you'll find lots of baskets, from very small starting to sides being built up on small, medium, or large sizes. So I never can tell how long it's going to take. Some pieces have sat in my studio for three and four years before it's finished, but I'm always working on something. So that's my answer.
NEA: Do you listen to music while you work?
Mary Jackson: I do. I also listen to TV too, because I like to keep abreast on what's going on in the world.
NEA: What kind of music do you like to listen to when you weave?
Mary Jackson: I like just pleasant classical music or sometimes rock music. It all depends on my mood that day.
NEA: Now 2008 was a pretty big year for you, wasn't it?
Mary Jackson: It was a mind-blowing year. And even when it's mentioned, tears come to my eyes. When I was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, it was just unbelievable. I've always known about the MacArthur awards, but never did I even imagine that I would get a telephone call one morning. This gentleman who called me said, "Congratulations. You've been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship." I nearly fell off my chair in my studio. I was there alone that morning and working and my phone rang. I picked up the phone, and this person said, "I'm calling from The MacArthur Foundation." It didn't ring a bell. I was maybe thinking, well, here's someone who's calling for a brochure about my work or some information.
Well, he started with, "May I speak with Mary Jackson?" And I said, "Speaking." He said, "Mary, my name is Dan Socolow. I'm calling from The MacArthur Foundation." I said, "How are you?" He said, "I'd like to talk with you. Do you have a minute?" I said, "Yes, I do." He said, "Are you in your studio?" I said, "Yes, I am." "Are you alone?" I said, "Yes." And then I'm getting curious. Why are all these questions coming? And he said, "Are you sitting down?" I said, "Yes." So he said, "I want to tell you that you have been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship." I said, "No." I said, "You're kidding." He said, "No, I'm not." He said, "You have been awarded," he says, "a MacArthur Fellowship." I said, "This can't be true." I said, "I've always heard about MacArthur Fellowship, but never did I imagine I'd be talking to you about this." He said, "Congratulations. We've been watching you for a long time, and we like very much what you do. We love what you do, and people from all over the country have written in support of your work." And by this time, I'm sitting down with tears coming down my eyes. And I said, "I just can't believe this." He said, "It is true." He said, "We'd like you to give an interview to the Associated Press who should be contacting you immediately after I get through talking with you. We ask that you tell just one person. Because the national announcement will be happening a week from today," which was the day when he called me, "but the Associated Press will do an interview for us that we can broadcast and we will send a photographer to take pictures of you that we will have to publicize this. And tomorrow morning you'll be receiving a letter, by FedEx, at your doorstep, with the formal announcement." I was speechless. He said, "Congratulations. And this money is yours to do whatever you would like to do. We have no restrictions." And he said, "By the way, do you know how much it is?" I said, "No." He said, "It's $500,000." Well, I really dropped. And so it was just amazing. He says, "You will never hear from us again. Just keep doing what you're doing and enjoy this money."
It was just so exciting. I couldn't even think for the rest of the day. It seemed like my whole world around me got silent, and I yelled to my husband who had a shop downstairs in the building from where my studio is. And I said, "Lock the door and come upstairs immediately." He thought, well, what in the world has happened? And he came upstairs, and tears were coming down my eyes. I said, "Sit down. You wouldn't believe the phone call that I got." So I told him, and he just came and he held me. He said, "Oh, I always thought that one day you might get this award." I said, "Well, I did not feel that way."
NEA: What a lovely husband.
Mary Jackson: Well, he's a strong supporter of my work. He really admires what I do, and he always felt that it was a beautiful art form. But I'll tell you something in addition to that. Three days before I got this call from The MacArthur Foundation, I received a call from an organization out of California that had been around for three years at that time. And they award fellowships to artists to help them with continuing their work, that they felt who was deserving of this award. And that was $50,000 three days before I got a call from MacArthur that I received this award. So you could imagine how I felt when I got the call from MacArthur also just three days later. Neither organization knew. I don't think they knew about my receiving this award, that I was up for the award. So it was an exciting year, 2008.
The pleasure for me is to see how people receive my work; it's sought after. People enjoy what I do. And collectors of fine basketry, they were always knocking on my door. So I keep busy with this pleasure of making my work. And to get this affirmation, it was just unbelievable.
NEA: And then who comes along but the National Endowment for the Arts with its National Heritage Fellowship award.
Mary Jackson: The National Heritage award was one that I had always coveted. Early on, I always said, "Gee, I wish when I get old that I would get that award." Because it is a huge honor, and I never, never imagined getting a letter from them saying that I'd been awarded. I'm 65 years old. But it was just exciting. Because it was an award that I felt was a real honor to get, even early on in my career. Because there were several people from my area who had received the award over the years. But I never thought about them considering me.
NEA: Well, you're keeping this tradition alive and you're passing it to the next generation, aren't you? Your daughter weaves as does your granddaughter.
Mary Jackson: Yes. My granddaughter is in the learning process. She's now 12 years old. During the summertime, when she's not busy with camp or some other activity, she comes to the studio with her mother, my daughter, April. And April, I've taught her since she was a little girl. So she's mastered the techniques, but she doesn't weave on a daily basis. She has no interest in doing what I'm doing. But she always felt like she wanted to know it, that one day it would go on from her to her daughter. I've passed it on, and I'm continuing to pass it on. Sometimes I get invitations to do a workshop in different communities. And so I take time out sometimes to do that, even at a crafts school. People are learning more and more about it.
NEA: And you have hopes that it'll continue to be passed along?
Mary Jackson: And I hope that it will continue to be passed along, yes.
Photo courtesy of Ms. Jackson
NEA National Heritage fellow Mary Jackson talks about the art and tradition of sweetgrass basketmaking. [22:52]