By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010; E09
Mary Jackson, a small, almost delicate woman with chin-length dark hair, walks through an exhibit of baskets -- some flat and traylike, some bowl-shaped, some lidded, even a basket meant to hold beer. Around her, the fragrance of sweetgrass and bulrush scents the air.
Coiled baskets such as these, Jackson is explaining, have been made by Africans and African Americans for hundreds of years. Traditional shapes started out as utilitarian objects used in the harsh work of slavery, became crafts sold by the side of the road and evolved into exquisite works of art.
Some of the most elegant examples here at the National Museum of African Art were woven by Jackson herself, and she quietly explains how this craft became the lifeblood of her family and the people around her.
"My grandmother would talk about how [basketmaking] was done on the plantation because it was brought from Africa. People kept the tradition because they wanted evidence of where they had come from," Jackson says as she walks among the 200 objects in the show, "Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art." She's wearing black flats and loose, dark green pants and shirt. Her one nod to being part of the idiosyncratic art world is her blue-framed eyeglasses.
At home in South Carolina, there were also lessons in how important the basket weavers were to plantation owners: The slave families who made the work baskets for the plantation were kept together. As the skill was passed down, it became second nature to weave and sell. Both of Jackson's grandmothers sold vegetables and baskets at the Old City Market in downtown Charleston, and her mother sold baskets along Highway 17.
People who know sweetgrass know Jackson. She has exhibited her creations in international crafts shows, has been on national television and has even won a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called the "genius grant."
Every time the spotlight falls on her, Jackson says, it helps the whole basketry community.
"People recognize what I am doing," she says, in a soft, self-effacing way. "But this [exposure] brings recognition for the basketmakers they might not have received. My work is to encourage people to come to my community." Jackson lives and works in Johns Island just outside Charleston.
For the next five months the curious and the converted can go to the Smithsonian museum to see her creations, along with those of dozens of other named artists. The show covers 300 years of history, beginning with the need in Africa for a tool for rice cultivation.
The objects range from the 19th-century examples made by enslaved hands to the intricate work of today's artisans, such as Elizabeth Mazyck, Ida Jefferson and Mary Jane Manigault.
There are measuring cups, sewing baskets and teapots. There are ziggurat-like lids formed like staircases. Some baskets have little woven "feet" underneath. Reuben Ndwandwe, a South African, created coiled containers for holding beer.
The South Carolina baskets are usually a combination of light and deep beige, keeping to the traditional sweetgrass and bulrush. The contemporary African baskets are more colorful, using recycled materials such as telephone wire.
The show was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, along with three other organizations, and includes five videos, photographs, paintings and sculptures.
Jackson drove to Washington with her husband of 35 years, Stoney, for one night just to attend the June 22 preview of the museum show. That same week, she was named a Heritage Fellow, one of the country's highest accolades for artists, by the National Endowment for the Arts. By the time of that announcement, though, Jackson, 65, was back in her studio, taming the grasses as she moved among her works in progress -- she works on several baskets at a time -- while listening to public radio.
When Jackson was about 4, the women in her family began to teach her how to weave the sweetgrass that was plentiful around the South Carolina basin. She practiced under a tree in her grandmother's front yard when she didn't have school or farm chores.
The young Mary was not quite enamored of the task, she said. It was slow work, hard on the hands. "I thought it was a chore," Jackson says.
She stopped making baskets for a very long time. She spent a decade in New York, working as a secretary. She quit when her son, then 18 months, developed severe asthma.
Returning home, she had to supplement the family income, and baskets again became a solution and a channel to activism. Real estate development was reaching the sources of the grasses. "I was interacting with older basketmakers who were having trouble finding sweetgrass. Historically the land was owned by other people, not the basketmaking community. We sought permission to plant and use the land," Jackson says. They got it.
For many years, she just made the baskets for herself, departing from traditional round forms. "I wanted to be totally different," she explains. She used sable palmetto to tightly wrap the sweetgrass. She created tall, hooplike handles, with shapes that twist like roller coasters, and wide rims.
In time, people who study crafts began to hear of Jackson and her innovations. In 1984, she was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Craft Show, one of the largest juried shows in the country. "That was my first national showing. . . . Also in 1984 my work went to the Vatican with an exhibition of art from Georgia," she recalled.
In 2008, Jackson was named a MacArthur Fellow, receiving $500,000. "I still haven't decided what to do with it. Something for my grandchildren, something to further my work," she says. You don't hurry an artist, someone who can spend a couple of years on one basket.
Today she's the gold standard. She stands by a basket she wove in 1984, "Ginger Basket." The large basket has a traditional ginger-jar shape, with the horizontal, curved lines made of dark grass and the vertical a natural beige. Its lid is textured with woven "studs." "Those French knots are from pine needles, and the dark lines are bulrush," Jackson says. "You have to learn how to control the grasses to get these forms."
Jackson also points out "Diploma Basket," crafted in 1989. "A diploma basket was made in the early days of the free schools of learning. The teacher lined up the diplomas in one. I saw one old piece and I decided to do my version," she says.
When she stops near a hat she made back in 1979, she just shakes her head and looks to see where Stoney had gone. She says she has vowed never to do one again after a customer saw her husband wearing his. The finished product took years -- and then it was too big. She has insisted that her husband never wear his in public.
What the exhibit can't display is the apprehension of basketmakers that their art form might be dying out. Younger people just aren't interested. "Too many distractions," Jackson says. And most of the basketmakers don't have someone to sit by their side and fall in love with the smell and the shapes.
But she does: Her two granddaughters are showing interest, and Mary Jackson just might get to pass the tradition along.
African Origins of an American Art
is at the National Museum of African Art,
950 Independence Ave. SW, through Nov. 28.
For information, go to http://africa.si.edu.