January 1995

Mary Jackson

Artist/Sweetgrass Basket Maker

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson is a living link to a 300-year-old tradition which can be traced to the Senegambia area in the Ivory Coast of West Africa. Jackson makes very distinctive baskets, known as sweetgrass baskets. Her work has been widely exhibited throughout the nation and is also represented in the private collections of foreign dignitares, including Great Britain’s Prince Charles, Monaco’s Princess Caroline, and Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan. “It is considered to be one of the oldest art forms of African origin in America,” she explained, “and is the only basket of its kind in the United States.” The plant called sweetgrass can only be found in the coastal dunes of the southeastern United States. It is the basic ingredient in creating the coiled baskets that are in such great demand among tourists who visit Charleston. Jackson is a member of Charleston’s Mount Pleasant community, the mecca of sweetgrass basketmaking. Ironically, the end of slavery in the United States almost let to the disappearance of the craft. Plantation owners in the rice-growing low country regions of the Southeast valued highly the experienced basketmakers who could make the baskets for carrying the rice grains. In the years following, the basketmakers became very secretive about their work. “Until recently, this was a very guarded tradition,” said Jackson, “because people in the community were afraid outsiders would come in and tell us how to make and sell the baskets.” Jackson is a founding member and president of the Mount Pleasant Sweetgrass Basketmakers’ Association. Jackson learned how to make baskets from her mother at the age of four, but abandoned the art when she moved to New York after graduating from high school. She returned to the state in 1972 and took up basketmaking again in her spare time. When she decided to leave her secretarial position to look after her son, she became a full-time basketmaker and began to appreciate the legacy. “Later, I realized that my mother had taught me more than just an art form. She put me in touch with my past, with my ancestors who brought this tradition with them as slaves from Africa,” said Jackson. “It is important to hold on to our heritage,” she said. “The baskets are practical; they were made to be used. But, at the same time, they will always be a link to our past.” Creating a sweetgrass basket is time consuming. The larger, intricately detailed baskets sometimes take months to make. The baskets are not simply for show; they can be used as bread baskets or storage containers. Not only is Jackson an expert at traditional basketmaking, but she has introduced different shapes and designs, which reflect a modernization of the craft. She explained, “I just took it a step beyond. My work is larger than the traditional.” In attempting to preserve this rich cultural heritage, she has traveled to present lectures at conventions, museums and galleries all over the United States to define and defend the craft of basketmaking as an acceptable artistic interpretation. Also, she presents workshops to local schools and art organizations across the United States. She is aware that not too many young people are attracted to the idea of basketmaking. An even greater threat is the increased coastal development, which has created a shortage of sweetgrass by wiping out many of the wetland areas of the southeast. “Sweetgrass Basketmaking is a tradition that I am very proud of and I won’t let die,” she declared.