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
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal agency
Mary Jackson remembers when she first learned sweetgrass basket making. [5:17]
Craft in America explores Mary Jackson's work as a basketmaker and the history and tradition of basketweaving in South Carolina. Video courtesy of Craft in America, Inc.