Weaving tradition: Local sweetgrass basket makers' works chosen for Smithsonian exhibit

June 18, 2010 

  • Weave your own sweetgrass basket with Michael Smalls at 10:30 a.m. June 25 at The Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn on Hilton Head Island. Details: 843-689-6767, ext. 223

Michael Smalls and Daurus Niles make it their life's work to preserve the craft of sweetgrass basket making. An upcoming exhibit will put their creations in one of the nation's most prestigious museums.

Their baskets will appear later this month in a special exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Smalls and Niles will travel to the nation's capital for the reception and opening Tuesday and Wednesday.

The two are distant cousins from the Mount Pleasant area who learned the time-intensive practice of coiling sweetgrass into baskets from their great-grandmother. They're best known locally for teaching classes on the craft, including selling and making their baskets at the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's Welcome Center on the north end of the island.

"The (Smithsonian) exhibit is a great chance to keep this art form going," said Smalls, a Bluffton resident.

The practice has been passed from generations, originating in West Africa and continuing in slave plantations of the Lowcountry. Slaves made large, round fanner baskets to clean off rice husks. While it originated for practical purposes, the basket making lives on today as an art form.

Smalls and Niles' great-grandmother took her wares to Broad Street in Charleston to sell. The children weren't excluded -- if they wanted money, they had to earn it with their hands, weaving their own baskets and selling them. The children would start by making simple place mats to hone their skills, then let their creativity produce more complex artistry.

Smalls started weaving when he was about 8 years old. But as he grew older, he fell away from it, only coming back sporadically to weave. He worked in the auto industry until downsizing left him few options but to reach back into his past to find what he felt was his true talent.

"I was blessed with a gift, so I got into doing this full time," he said.

He weaves at the Welcome Center five days a week, threading palmetto strips around sweetgrass with a nail bone, the broken-off handle of a spoon filed to a point. He sells his wares, and some larger pieces fetch more than $1,000. Visitors often ask about the high price and he explains that sweetgrass itself is rare to find and the art form even more rare. Plus, the process is time consuming -- a medium-sized basket takes Smalls about two days to complete.

The pieces being shown in the Smithsonian's exhibit -- Smalls' angel-shaped vase and Niles' serving tray -- were part of a collection from the McKissick Museum at University of South Carolina.

"It's one of the only art forms that can be traced back to West Africa," said Niles, a Summerville resident. "Most others have died out."

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