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Sweet Grass Basket, 1999

Mary A. Jackson

Look closely at this innovative handwoven basket from MAD’s collection that was crafted using processes and materials dating back centuries. Reflect on why traditions are important to keep alive and weave your own vessel using household items.

LOOK

A contemporary artist who lives and works in Charleston, South Carolina, Mary A. Jackson creates baskets using plants indigenous to the area, such as sweetgrass, pine needles and palmetto leaves. These natural materials have been used for making baskets in South Carolina for over 300 years.

Imagine yourself holding this basket:

  • How would you describe its shape? What do you notice about the design? How Is the basket similar to or different from the baskets you see in everyday life? How so?
  • Where might you come across a basket that looks like this?
  • How would you use this basket?

EXPLORE

When Jackson weaves a basket, she bundles together dried sweetgrass (a plant sacred to many Native peoples in North America) and then precisely coils the grass to form the distinctive shape of her baskets. Strands of palmetto leaves used to hold the coil in place are integral to its geometric patterning, while bulrush and pine needles are also incorporated for additional strength and variations of color. Sweet Grass Basket is perfectly symmetrical, a testimony to Jackson’s virtuosity.

Watch this video of Mary A. Jackson weaving one of her baskets and learn about her deep-rooted cultural ties to the creative process.

  • How does Jackson use different plant materials to create structure and decorative designs on her baskets?
  • In what ways does this basket resemble a traditional woven vessel? How does it differ?
  • How might Sweet Grass Basket look if it was mass-produced by a machine instead of made by hand?
  • Do you think it matters how an object was made? Why or why not?

According to the artist, the art form of sweetgrass basketry originated in West Africa, specifically the Senegalese area and Senegambia, and some parts of the Ivory Coast. Jackson’s ancestors were slaves who in their captivity found the grasses growing in the Carolinas resembled what they had used in Africa. African basket weaving traditionally included the entire family— with men harvesting the grasses from the marshes and the swamps and the women and children making the baskets. Crafting sweetgrass baskets while enslaved became a vital skill set that protected Black families from being forcibly separated.

Over the centuries, these skills were handed down from generation to generation. Jackson has described how “we would all assemble in my grandmother's front yard, under big trees and we would sit together and make baskets.” As a contemporary artist working today, Jackson is now internationally celebrated for creating baskets that are entirely new and beautiful while also honoring past histories.

  • Why is it important to keep traditions alive?
  • What traditions do your family practice together?
  • What new traditions would you like to adapt or create?

MAKE

Use household items to create your own woven vessel inspired by Mary A. Jackson’s Sweet Grass Basket.

Materials

  • Paper or plastic cup (make sure you are able to cut through the material)
  • Pen or pencil
  • Scissors
  • Tape or glue
  • Template (printed or on-screen)
  • Materials to weave with, such as:
    • Yarn or string
    • Strips of fabric (Hint: upcycle old clothing by cutting them into strips of fabric for your weaving)
    • Strips of plastic (Hint: cut plastic grocery bags into long strips)
    • Aluminum foil (cut into long strips or rolled into a coil)

Instructions

  1. Print out or open the Template file on your computer. This template will help you create evenly-spaced guidelines on your cup.
  2. Place your cup open-side down on top of the template, centering the cup within the circle.
  3. Use a pen or pencil to make a small mark on the cup where it touches the template at a dividing line. The goal is to create evenly-spaced marks on the edge of your cup.
  4. Flip your cup and repeat Steps 1—3 at the bottom of your cup. You should now have evenly spaced marks on the top and bottom of your cup.
  5. Use your scissors to cut down the sides of the cup at each mark, starting at the top of the cup and ending ¼” from the base of your cup. The sides of your cup should now look like “spokes” radiating from the bottom of your cup.
  6. We can now start to weave! Take the first piece of your weaving material and tape one end to the inside bottom of the cup.
  7. Weave in and out of spokes, pushing the woven material to the bottom of your cup as you work.
  8. When you run out of one piece of weaving material, connect it to another piece by tying the two ends together and continue weaving.

    Tip: Alternate colors or types of weaving materials to create an interesting pattern.
    Tip: For a shiny addition, use strips or coils of aluminum foil as a weaving material.

  9. When you have reached the top of your cup, cut your weaving material and tuck the end into the row below to secure it. You can also use a bit of glue to secure your loose end.

Mary A. Jackson (United States, b. 1945)
Sweet Grass Basket, 1999
17 1/2 x 16 1/4 x 16 1/4 in. (44.5 x 41.3 x 41.3 cm)
Sweetgrass, pine needles, palmetto; bundled, bound, coil constructed
Museum of Arts and Design, New York; gift of Marcia and Alan Docter, 2000

This object lesson was written by MAD artist educator Rachel Cohen

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