Thanks to Judy Powell Crawford of Beaufort for sharing her look at Sea Island culture.
Judy is a Beaufort native who writes about the Lowcountry after retiring from the Department of Defense. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Judy Crawford
My heart was beating in anticipation of meeting Jery Taylor, an artist, a master bulrush-sweetgrass basket weaver and a living legacy of traditional African arts and crafts of the old Sea Islands of South Carolina. My mind exploded with the thoughts of meeting this artist and asking her questions about her art forms. Dually, I was excited about visiting the York W. Bailey Museum at Penn Center for the first time.
Greeted by the York W. Bailey Museum attendant, my eyes gazed into the next room where I could see magnificent bulrush and sweetgrass baskets displayed upon high podiums in the middle of the room.
As I looked upon the gallery walls, I could see colorful paintings hanging. Being fixated on the anticipation of being able to touch these baskets deafened my ears to what the museum attendant was saying. Emerging to the forefront of the gallery room was Jery Taylor; how friendly and welcoming was her smile. With a mute stare, I brushed past the counter entrance to introduce myself to Ms. Taylor. I was pleasantly surprised that her demeanor was warm and embracing like that of my sister, my mother and my friend.
After all guests had arrived, there was a formal introduction of Ms. Taylor, the artist. She greeted us with a smile and gave us a brief history of her life as a child growing up in Mount Pleasant, S.C. She shared with us how she became a bulrush basket weaver, which began at age 5 under the tutelage of her grandmother. She showed us a short video of how she gathers and prepares the bulrush and sweetgrass plants from the coastal wetlands of the Sea Islands. She explained the different art forms, tools and techniques used in making a basket.
In addition, she shared with us the evolution of her art form by combining the two indigenous plants, the bulrush and the sweetgrass techniques. By marrying these plants into art, she has created a more beautiful, amazing and artful basket-weaving style. She has not yet named this technique of basket weaving.
As we toured the gallery hall, Ms. Taylor related her paintings to her true-life experiences with her grandmother, who had a roadside stand for bulrush-sweetgrass baskets in Charleston. Her paintings depicted the usefulness of the baskets, such as the men using the baskets on their boats to carry fish and crabs. Another painting showed how the baskets were once used for humble tasks such as harvesting fruits and vegetables and carrying bales of cotton from the fields.
Ms. Taylor's presentation of her work was insightful and spellbinding, which left the audience hanging on her every word. She stated that today the baskets are looked upon as cultural art forms of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and used as decoration. However, she sees them as an ancestral legacy that needs to be passed on from one generation to another. This is why she feels so strongly about preserving bulrush-sweetgrass basket craft heritage for posterity.
Recently, Ms. Taylor was asked by Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling to make a key to the city out of the sweetgrass plant. It was presented to Candice Glover, the 2013 American Idol, during her homecoming celebration in Beaufort.
Her works can be found throughout the country, most notably in the art collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
While at the York W. Bailey Museum at the Penn Center, the ambiance was that of old but not forgotten heritage of the Geechee-Gullah ancestral traditions, cultures and African influences. It has signs explaining the history of the Sea Island people, handcrafted artifacts of long ago, and knowledgeable museum attendants who readily answered questions about the Sea Island peoples' heritage and culture.
The museum experience made the history of what life was like for the freed Sea Island people understandable and real. I would encourage everyone to take time out to visit the museum. The York W. Bailey Museum is located at 16 Penn Center Circle, St. Helena Island, SC, and for more info call 843-838-2432.
Jery Taylor can be reached most times at the Gullah Grub Restaurant, 877 Sea Island Parkway on St. Helena Island, where she has an array of bulrush-sweetgrass baskets on display.
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