Charleston basket weaver wins "genius grant"

jackson_mary_download_4_resized.jpgA native of Charleston and a descendant of the Gullah community has been chosen to receive one of the most prestigious prizes in America. Mary Jackson, a resident of Johns Island who grew up in Mt. Pleasant, is one of 25 winners of the MacArthur Foundation's annual "genius grant," a fellowship given to creative individuals distinguished by their efforts to push the boundaries of their respective fields. The grant is worth $500,000. Yes, that's right -- half a million dollars. "I'm kinda speechless," Jackson said. "I really don't know what to say. "When I got the call, it was astounding." For each of the next five years, Jackson will receive $100,000 with no strings attached, so that she can focus on an art form sprung from a tradition centuries old. Jackson is a renowned fiber artist whose intricately fashioned baskets -- made of sweetgrass, bulrush, and other Lowcountry plants -- are displayed in museums around the world. Some of these institutions include the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Museum of African American History in Detroit. Some of her baskets have sold for as much as $20,000. Jackson started learning to weave when she was four years old from her mother and her grandmother, who were themselves passing down a tradition that goes all the way back to slaves brought to South Carolina from West Africa and the Caribbean. Baskets were utilitarian at the time, serving to winnow rice and other grains. Jackson has expanded the craft's functional roots, creating finely designed and sculptural forms. She uses a variety of fiber to achieve an array of textures and colors. Her technique of coiling the fiber mirrors that of weavers currently working in Africa. "She's just extraordinary," says Dan Socolow, head of the MacArthur Foundation's fellowship program. "She turns a centuries-old art form into a 21st-century art form." Socolow said the fellowship is intended to aid recipients so they can be "a little bit freer and have a little bit more opportunity" as they continue to create and innovate. As a MacArthur fellow, Jackson is now among an elite group of people that includes scientists, doctors, engineers, social activists, journalists, novelists, and artists. Her award almost certainly ranks her among Charleston's elite artists. The "genius grant" is awarded every year to "creative individuals who inspire new heights in human achievement," said Jonathan Fanton, president of the foundation in a written statement. "With their boldness, courage, and uncommon energy, this new group of fellows ... exemplifies the boundless nature of the human spirit." There have been 781 fellows since the fellowship began in 1981. In the category of artists and writers, past recipients have included: pianist Stephen Hough, the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, jazz violinist Regina Carter, novelist Thomas Pynchon, artist Kara Walker, journalist Katherine Boo, historian Jonathan Spence, choreographer Paul Taylor, art historian Kirk Varnedoe, filmmakers John Sayles and Errol Morris, and the late novelist David Foster Wallace.
September 23, 2008 5:35 AM | | Comments (1)

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About 5 years ago while afoot on a city tour of Charleston, my wife and I came upon four ladies of various ages 20-60+, who were gathered near a popular tourist site. As these women carried on their conversation, maintaining direct eye contact with one another, their hands repeatedly produced beautiful and intricate woven baskets one after another, that a machine would be taxed to duplicate. This long deserved recognition is a very fitting reward for elevating aesthetics from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

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