As a five-year-old girl, Jery Taylor learned the art of sweetgrass basket weaving from her grandmother on the grounds of Boone Hall Plantation near Charleston.
Today, Taylor owns Jery’s Baskets, an artist studio located in the heart of Savannah’s City Market that showcases her handwoven baskets, bowls, trays, fans and vases, as well as her original paintings.
The intricate circular patterns that begin with a simple knot of lush green sweetgrass quickly evolve into ornate pieces of art that are the perfect memento of a vacation to coastal South Carolina. More than a commercial product, these baskets are a lifeline to the endangered Gullah-Geechee culture, which traces its roots to West Africa, and has been featured on HGTV and the Discovery Channel. Taylor’s baskets are even included in the permanent collection at the Smithsonian museums.
Jery’s woven works of art, combined with her bright smile, invite locals and visitors to learn more about the contributions of her West African ancestors who were first brought to South Carolina’s Sea Islands in the 1600s. Guests can also purchase an informative DVD, titled “Prelude to a Sweetgrass Basket.”
The eye-catching baskets were originally developed as utilitarian resources designed to assist with the cultivation of rice.
Baskets were handwoven from sweetgrass, pine needles, palmetto fronds and bulrush to transport, store, fan and flip rice crops.
Some Gullah-Geechee descendants, especially females, learned the techniques of basket weaving from their elders. Others learned techniques specifically for bulrush baskets from teachers at the Penn School for freed slaves on St. Helena Island, SC. Jery discovered the technique from the daughter of a Penn School alumnus. She taught her the distinctive pattern in the 1990s.
“I’m the only one left who knows the pattern to make bulrush baskets,” Taylor explained. “I even make a special Jery’s Sweet Rush basket, which combines sweetgrass materials with the bulrush technique.”
Taylor’s determination to keep the Gullah-Geechee culture alive inspired her to take up painting in 2007.
Painting allowed her to venture outside her comfort zone. Popular with visitors, as well as local residents she paints her folk art.
“I find inspiration from a combination of what I see and from my imagination,” she explained. “A lot of the paintings I do are about the life we have lived. I paint everything from baptisms and the church to working the fields and hanging out clothes on wash days.”