Gullah sweetgrass baskets, made by the descendants of West African slaves, are cherished cultural icons and Mary A. Jackson (1945--) is the premier Lowcountry fiber artist who fashions those baskets. First sold at the Charleston City Market in 1980, her baskets are included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design, the White House Collection of American Crafts, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Museum of African American History, Detroit, and the Gibbes Museum of Art, whose curator, Angela Mack, has stated that "Mary Jackson may well be the best known artist from South Carolina."
Mrs. Jackson received the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, a Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and she also was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" for $500,000 for "Translating practical designs into intricately coiled vessels that preserve the centuries-old craft of sweetgrass basketry and push the tradition in stunning new directions." ** Her baskets are owned by Prince Charles, with whom she had dinner, and the Empress of Japan, among many others.
To quote an article about Mary Jackson and her basketry in Garden and Gun Magazine, "At once timeless and contemporary, it seems to have been built upon perfect circular molds, the handle incredibly thin and graceful, the sweetgrass coils exceptionally precise, loops of palmetto ribbons fanning out across them in almost geometric perfection. It is an architectural miracle." Mrs. Jackson has stated that she never, ever signs a basket because they should not have anything artificial connected to them.
In the past, Gullah baskets were mostly sold along a then still-rural Highway 17, the route northerners took to Florida. In a 2019 article about Mrs. Jackson in "Charleston" magazine, author Stephanie Hunt wrote, "Think of the basket stands that once lined Highway 17 and those that still dot it—an early iteration of Etsy, a highly innovative, direct-to-market platform."
This spectacular large coiled basket has an outstretched, double layer curved handle on each side and a fitted lid with a slight peak in the center. The basket tapers to a flared equator line and then tapers down again to a 7 1/2 inch diameter round bottom. It's 7 inches tall, has a circumference of 36 inches around the equator and measures 9 inches across the lid, about 13 1/4 inches including the handles. It weighs approximately 2 1/4 pounds and is in excellent condition save for a split in one of the palmetto fronds, shown magnified in one of our photos and located on the upper loop of one handle. Baskets like this one take Mrs. Jackson many months to make.
Included is an information card from Charleston Sweetgrass Baskets which accompanied the basket when we purchased it. It's signed "Mary A. Jackson" and has its original price written on it: $500.00. At the age of 75, Mrs. Jackson has "slowed down," making baskets only on commission, in addition to giving demonstrations and lectures about her basketry.
**Quote is from the MacArthur Foundation website, MacArthur Fellows Program.