February 24, 2011
Mary Jackson talks about the art of sweetgrass basket making with Nick Spitzer at the 2010 NEA Heritage Fellows celebration. Photo by Michael Stewart
In this week’s, National Heritage Fellow and MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient, Mary Jackson talks about the art of sweetgrass basket weaving. Born in South Carolina’s coastal country, Mary Jackson literally learned basket weaving at her mother’s knee. As a child, she would spend summer months sitting in her grandmother’s backyard with siblings and cousins learning the basic techniques and traditional designs that have been passed down from her West African ancestors.
Traditionally, sweetgrass baskets have performed a function such as storage containers or rice fanners. But when Jackson, as an adult, redevoted herself to sweetgrass weaving, she transformed these practical designs into beautifully crafted, finely detailed, sculptural forms. Her work has received the kind of accolades that most artists can only dream about: it has been exhibited at museums throughout the United States, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her baskets are now owned by the likes of Britain’s Prince Charles and the Empress of Japan.
Given her enormous dedication the art form, it might be surprising to learn that as a child, she saw the whole process as a time-consuming chore, as she reveals in this excerpt. [1:27]