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Basket maker’s works will appear at Colleton Museum in March

Jery Taylor with her works of art. Photo by Rick Tobin

Jery Taylor was five years old when she first started learning the art of making sweet-grass baskets, and has continued that tradition through time. She also learned how to make bulrush in her more mature years. Jery will be the focus of an exhibit at the Colleton County Museum &Farmers Market during the month of March.

“I learned how to make sweet-grass baskets, which is considered the Mt. Pleasant style, at five years old. I was my grandmother’s pet, and whatever she did, whether it was working in the fields, picking vegetables, or picking grass for baskets, I was there,” Jery said. Her grandmother was Herline Coakley, who appeared on the show “The Gullah Basket,” which was narrated by South Carolina Congressman James E. Clyburne. It originally aired in 1971, but also aired on Sunday, February 10 of this year. Herline Coakley passed away in 2002 at 89 years of age.

Jery is a descendant of West Africans of Sierra Leone, where her individual styles of basket making originate. She was born and raised in Mount Pleasant within the Christ Parish Church Community.

As a young girl, Jery lived with the family on Boone Hall Plantation near Charleston.

“As a child, I learned by doing. You just learn as you go. I was taught to make basket bottoms at first, and then learned the rest as time progressed. I learned on Boone Hall Plantation, where we lived. My grandmother sold tickets to people who toured the house, and my mother was a tour guide who also cooked for the MacRea’s, the owners. My great-great grandmother was a caretaker of the gardens.” Harris M. MacRea and his wife, Nancy, opened Boone Hall to the public in 1957, and have since made significant endeavors to preserve the original buildings and gardens.

Jery’s family moved from Boone Hall to a nearby residence on Old Georgetown Road, where her mother had bought a house. “We had a stand in front of that house, where we would sell our baskets,” Jery said.

In the early 90’s, Jery learned to make bulrush baskets, considered the Beaufort style of basket-making.”I learned to make the Beaufort style bulrush baskets from Janeie Kohen of Hilton Head Island in 1992 or 93,” she said. She has since learned to combine these two weaving styles to create a new type of basket style.

Jery said that you never know how long it will take to weave any particular basket. “You just never know about the time it will take, you can’t say how long it is going to take because you don’t know the problems you might eventually have. Sometimes you have to start over, and other times you have to rip strands out of the sweet-grass and bulrush and retry them. The Beaufort style baskets take longer than the Mt. Pleasant style, however.”

“The Colleton Museum and Farmers Market is proud to present the exhibition of ‘The Beaufort Basket’ by sweetgrass basket maker and local resident Jery Taylor,” said Museum Director Gary Brightwell. “Exhibited during the month of March, this showing celebrates Gullah traditional art in South Carolina. Ms. Taylor will also display some of her paintings.”

A reception at the Museum will be held for Jery on Saturday from 4-6 pm and is free and open to the public. “This exhibition of original pieces is based on 300-year-old native island coiled ‘work’ basketry once practiced by generations of slaves who transported the craft from Africa. It’s design is somewhat different from sweet-grass baskets normally seen. This museum-quality collection was inspired by the 150-year old ‘Penn School baskets’ in Beaufort County that were formerly made by the men using the fibrous bulrush plant found in the marshes.”

Brightwell continued that Jery has used a certain weaving technique reminiscent of the native island style, which has separated her from other basket weavers. “She says that she has tried to capture the ‘soul’ in the ancient baskets of her ancestors to re-create an authentic representation. This exhibit will also compare original heirloom baskets from the Colleton Museum with Ms. Taylor’s reproductions.

Jery Taylor is widely collected and is regarded as a master weaver in the circle of native Mt. Pleasant basket makers. She has been making baskets since she was five years old and is the third generation of basket weavers in her family. She is currently the only local practicing basket maker in the St. Helena Island community. A highly recognized artist, Jery Taylor has presented workshops in many museums and has exhibited baskets in the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Over the past three years, she has also become a self-taught folk artist, and her paintings, which will also be exhibited, capture the essence of Gullah life growing up on Boone Hall Plantation.”

Jery will also hold a workshop, “Making Your Own Sweetgrass Basket” at the Museum on Tuesday, March 5 from 4-6 pm. The fee is $20 and preregistration at the Museum is required.

Own a piece of history today; these baskets will undoubtedly appreciate. All baskets will be sold to the public (as well as her paintings.)

The Colleton Museum & Farmers Market is located at 506 E. Washington Street in Walterboro, SC. Admission is free.