Artist Mary Jackson Subnav Indicator
Link to Previous Artist
4 of 5
Link to Next Artist

Mary Jackson

Feb. 15, 1945

Loading...
Mary Jackson's intricately coiled sweetgrass baskets preserve a centuries-old craft and continue to expand the tradition of the Gullah community of coastal South Carolina. Bethesda, Maryland, 2010, photograph by Alan Govenar
Mary Jackson, courtesy Mary Jackson
Baskets by Mary Jackson, 2010 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Mary Jackson, Cobra Basket with Handle, photograph by Jack Alterman, courtesy Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson, Oval Vessel with Sweetgrass Spray, photograph by Jack Alterman, courtesy Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson, Two Lips Basket, photograph by Jack Alterman, courtesy Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson, Untitled Basket with Handle, photograph by Jack Alterman, courtesy Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson and Nick Spitzer, 2010 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Mary Jackson showing sweetgrass used in making baskets, 2010 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Alan Hatchett
Mary Jackson and Nick Spitzer, 2010 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Mary Jackson and Nick Spitzer, 2010 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Alan Hatchett

Mary Jackson grew up in Mount Pleasant, a small community in the South Carolina low country, an area rich in West African heritage. Slaves imported to the rice-growing region brought with them a language, Gullah, and great skill in making baskets that were put to a variety of uses by the plantation owners. When Jackson was about 4, her mother and grandmother began teaching her to make baskets. As a child, she also learned to harvest the plants, primarily sweetgrass, used in their construction. During the summer, she and her siblings and cousins gathered under big trees in her grandmother’s yard and wove baskets, though Jackson initially found the task drudgery. After graduating from high school, she lived in New York City for about ten years, but on trips home she continued making baskets with family members.

When she returned to Mount Pleasant to live in 1972, Jackson learned from family members that the sweetgrass used in baskets was disappearing. Through Jackson’s job at a Charleston community center, she made contact with a priest who got permission from landowners to harvest sweetgrass on land slated for development. Today, she works to preserve wetlands where sweetgrass grows and to ensure continued local access. In 2008, she received the Environmental Stewardship Award of Achievement from the South Carolina Aquarium.

In the 1970s, while continuing to create baskets from traditional designs, Jackson began to create her own. Late in that decade, she began to get commissions for baskets. After she quit work to take care of her asthmatic son, she began selling baskets on weekends at the city market in nearby Charleston, a practice that had begun decades before. “Women sold baskets along the roadside in the community where I grew up along Highway 17,” Jackson said. “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 seen before.” She achieved this goal as well. After she sold her baskets at the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., in 1984, she began to develop a national reputation and her work was displayed in art galleries in major cities. In 1988, she was involved in the founding of the Mount Pleasant Sweetgrass Basket Makers Association.

Jackson now lives on Johns Island, south of Charleston, where she works in a studio a few miles from her home. Her husband and son gather sweetgrass from the local marshes, and her daughter, whom Jackson taught to make baskets, provides administrative support. In 2008, Jackson received the USA Donnelly Fellowship, which includes a $50,000 stipend. Three days later, she learned that she had been awarded the $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called the “genius grant.”

Among Jackson’s students is her granddaughter, now a young teenager. “I’ve passed it on, and I’m continuing to pass it on,” Jackson said. “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.”

Bibliography
Hawkins, Ken. “Local sweetgrass basket weaver wins another grant.” The Digitel Charleston (November 11, 2008).
“Mary Jackson.” Craft in America: A journey to the artists, origins and techniques of American craft. PBS. http://www.pbs.org /craftinamerica/artists_memory.php
Trescott, Jacqueline. “Basketmaker Mary Jackson among artists included in African Art Museum show.” Washington Post (July 4, 2010).

Watch

Mary Jackson, 2010 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Mary Jackson, 2010 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts


Mary Jackson, 2010 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Mary Jackson answers the question 'Could you talk about when you were born and a little bit about your childhood?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the question 'What kind of work did your parents do?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the questions 'What did your mother and grandmothers do with their baskets? Were they sold or used?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the question 'From what materials were baskets made?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the question 'How have you learned about your ancestors?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the question 'Do you know what kind of African language your ancestors spoke?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the questions 'What is the process of teaching to make the baskets? How did your mother teach you?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson explains how she gathers the raw material to make baskets, Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the question 'When you finished high school, what did you do next?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the question 'Could you talk about your designs and how they relate to the tradition and how you've taken it further as an innovator?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the question 'What is the inspiration behind the baskets you make?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the question 'What does the tradition of basket making mean to you?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010

Mary Jackson answers the question 'What do you see as the future of basket making?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 22, 2010