A unique weaver of Beaufort baskets

St. Helena basket maker weaves area history into museum-quality pieces for Penn Center exhibit

August 12, 2011 

  • "The Beaufort Basket" exhibit, featuring handmade baskets by Jery Bennett-Taylor, is open through Aug. 26 at the York W. Bailey Museum at Penn Center, 16 Penn Circle W. on St. Helena Island. Museum admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children younger than 17.

    Details: 843-838-2474

Since she was 5 years old, sweetgrass and bulrush have been the threads of Jery Bennett-Taylor's life.

The rhythm of her fingers makes continuous circles "sewing" the dried bulrush grass and collected pine straw. Her work brings life to a variety of pieces -- wreaths, small breadbaskets and oversized fanner baskets, which were once used for winnowing the husks off rice.

"Now people use them for decoration," said Bennett-Taylor of her works. "Maybe they hang them over their fireplace."

The fourth generation weaver, Bennett-Taylor learned the technique as a young child from her mother and grandmother in Mount Pleasant. She is the only practicing basket maker in the St. Helena Island community.

Today, an exhibit called "The Beaufort Basket," features 11 museum- quality pieces made by Bennett-Taylor. These pieces are the first revival in Beaufort of the 300-year old native island coiled "work" baskets made by slaves. This collection was inspired by the 150-year-old baskets made by Penn School students using the bulrush plant harvested from the island's salt marshes. A rare "Marsh Tacky" sweetgrass basket made of horse hair -- never shown publicly -- is among the exhibit, which is open through Aug. 26 at York W. Bailey Museum at Penn Center on St. Helena.

Bennett-Taylor recalls watching her mother and grandmother use a pork chop bone to weave bulrush to form baskets just as their mothers did before them. She continues the tradition and has learned new forms of basket-making, some from Jannie Cohen of Hilton Head Island.

There are different styles of baskets, and Bennett-Taylor identifies them by their symmetrical design.

"You can tell the Mount Pleasant style of baskets, as the majority of the time they have colors and pine straw along with sweetgrass and now we use bulrush," Bennett-Taylor explained. "The Beaufort design is diagonal. You can also see a pyramid in the Beaufort style. The Beaufort style shows more movement."

Bennett-Taylor can be found on most afternoons sewing on the porch of Gullah Grub Restaurant at Sea Island Parkway and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on St. Helena Island.

She's become a fixture in her chair as she sews now using what she calls a "sweet teaspoon handle" that has been filed and softened by running the end through the sand.

In the past several years, Bennett-Taylor has expanded her work to canvas to include a collection of acrylic paintings that depict Gullah life called, "Expressions in Sweetgrass." She also has converted the original folk art into note cards.

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