Art Works Blog

Art I Heart

Washington, DC

2010 NEA National Heritage Fellow Mary Jackson. Photo courtesy of the artist

Having recently visited the Grass Roots exhibition at the National Museum of African Art, I learned my first very important lesson about Google: never search for an image of something that you can see in person. After reading and listening to our extensive interview with 2010 NEA National Heritage Fellow, Mary Jackson, this is exactly what I did. Images of her sweetgrass baskets complemented what I had learned about Jackson's role in preserving sweetgrass basketmaking, an African utilitarian tradition turned African-American art form. Jackson learned her craft in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, as a child and among family as a form of busywork. Today, basketmaking is both Jackson's love and livelihood; her work and designs are nationally recognized. And like I said, they?re Google-able.

One of Mary Jackson's Two Lips baskets is featured in the Grass Roots exhibit. Photo by Jack Alterman

In the Grass Roots exhibit, Mary Jackson?s extraordinary baskets take their place among several generations of equally ambitious and time consuming designs. Each takes time and patience to create, from the cutting and peeling of the grass blades to the intricate twisting, tucking and weaving of the leaves. The result is a patterned and often multi-colored assemblage combining durability and design: a rice fanner, a fruit basket, a hat. What makes Jackson's baskets unique is her personal creative contribution to traditional designs. Among her five creations on display at the Smithsonian exhibit, the most interesting and unique is a two-lipped basket, placed in the grand display and focal point of the exhibit. Her other contributions include a sewing basket, a Memminger diploma basket, a hat and a ginger basket, appropriately located in the front room just under the impressive wall text which introduces the exhibit.

Cobra with Handle basket by Mary Jackson. Photo by Jack Alterman

Surrounding the montage of Jackson's baskets and other artfully produced pieces are vestiges of history and memory, which connect the current pieces with the basketmaking traditions of Africa and of slaves in America. Edited films depicting the communities and lives of the sweetgrass basket makers reveal visual documentation of the things Jackson often refers to in our interview with her: being taught by her grandmother as a child, going out to the marshes to harvest the grasses and selling baskets in the local city markets. The result is an inclusive presentation of the craft and a fitting homage to the artists who are keeping the tradition alive, and we?re glad to see Jackson's pieces as a part of it. So do not Google-search ?Mary Jackson sweetgrass baskets?---get to the museum and see them for yourself. (The exhibit closes on November 30.)

Visit Mary Jackson's page in the NEA National Heritage Fellow section of our website to learn more about Jackson and her work.

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