SCIWAY News No. 77 – October 2009
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Two for the Road – Take Two!Last month we featured the first of two SC state symbols that can easily be spotted along the roadsides this time of year. We began with goldenrod, our state wildflower, which we'll continue to see blooming bright yellow all over the state until after Thanksgiving.
This month, we bring you South Carolina's distinctive state handcraft – the sweetgrass basket. Baskets are a common sight in the Lowcountry, especially in downtown Charleston and along US 17 in Mount Pleasant.
Sweetgrass baskets are made from – you guessed it – sweetgrass! A native plant, sweetgrass is basically nondescript and unremarkable most of the year. But in late September and October, the delicate haze of its rosy plume really catches your eye.
— Sweetgrass Basketmaker | © Nina Uccello —
Sweetgrass baskets are valued for their complexity, their beauty, and their utility. They also serve to remind us of the rich African heritage brought to this country by slaves. The baskets are almost identical in style to the shukublay baskets of Sierra Leone, and learning to coil baskets "so tightly they could hold water" was an important rite of passage for many tribal youths.
Long used on plantations to winnow rice, the baskets became imperative after the Civil War. Newly freed blacks had little or no money to set up their homes, and this time-honored skill served them in good stead. They were able to take natural materials found along rivers and in trees, and shape them into useful vessels for the house and field. In the early 1900s, basketmakers started selling their creations to Northern tourists. In this way, many were able to support their families during a time that offered few other possibilities.
— Sweetgrass Baskets | © Dana Elliott —
These days, sweetgrass baskets are no mere roadside novelty. The craft has developed into a fine art. One Lowcountry basketmaker was awarded the coveted MacArthur Grant last year, which comes complete with a check for $500,000! Sweetgrass baskets can be found in museums and art collections all over the United States, including the White House Collection of Arts and Crafts, the Smithsonian, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Museum of African American History in Detroit.
— Goldenrod & Sweetgrass | © Elizabeth McConnell of Mt Pleasant —
In the coming months, SCIWAY will create a complete guide to South Carolina's sweetgrass baskets – including information about the four ways in which the art has become threatened, as well as what some hard-working people are doing to help. In the meantime, enjoy a few more interesting facts related to our state handcraft!
Be sure to also check the three other South Carolina symbols we enjoy each fall – the glorious goldenrod, the elegant eastern tiger swallowtail, and the wonderful wild turkey!
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