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Jun 26, 2024

Keepers of the Flame

Morgan Stewart

Photography By

Joel Caldwell for Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund
“Having learned this art form from my grandmother, I am excited to be able to share this incredible part of my culture with the residents and guests of Palmetto Bluff,” Taylor said.

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The Arts Initiative at Palmetto Bluff was conceived to inspire and enrich lives through art in all its forms. Each year, notable Southern masters of their craft are invited to address varied themes that tie to the community’s values as they immerse themselves in the local culture and lead workshops. 

Starting in July, The Arts Initiative will host its first Artist in Residence Summer Sweetgrass Series, featuring acclaimed basket sewers Michael Smalls and Dino Badger in July and Jery Taylor in August. Tickets for the events are available at PBArtsInitiative.com.

Sweetgrass sewer Jery Taylor at work in her Savannah studio

“We are truly honored to have such venerated practitioners as Michael, Dino and Jery leading this first Artist in Residence Summer Sweetgrass Series at Palmetto Bluff. The Arts Initiative was founded to forge a broader Lowcountry community and the ability to participate in workshops that explore such important aspects of Gullah heritage are vital to this mission,” said Maggie Hackett, director of marketing at Palmetto Bluff.

Sweetgrass basket sewing is an artisan craft that originated in Sierra Leone and was brought to the Lowcountry with those who were enslaved. According to the College of Coastal Georgia, the art is practiced in coastal and barrier island communities from North Carolina to Florida, a region known as the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The Gullah-Geechee are the descendants of enslaved West Africans who worked on coastal plantations. Though today the baskets are considered works of art, they were originally used for more practical purposes such as storing food, carrying crops from the fields, and fanning rice.

The basket-making process requires patience, dedication, and creativity as there are no set patterns and each piece is unique. Every basket starts with a knot, and moistened sweet grass or pine needles are repeatedly coiled and wrapped with strips of palmetto fronds. The word “sew” is used to describe the technique rather than “weave” because it more accurately describes the process of stitching together the coils rather than plaiting or braiding.

Sweetgrass basket sewers Dino Badger (L) and Michael Smalls (R) with some of their creations.

As these intricate baskets now serve more of a decorative purpose, makers have developed increasingly embellished designs whose patterns are created without dyes but instead by alternating the natural colors of the dried yellowish green sweetgrass, reddish brown-black needlegrass rush, and green longleaf pine needles.

This incredible tradition has been kept alive by passing the basket sewing techniques from generation to generation, as exemplified by Smalls, a seventh-generation basket sewer from Mount Pleasant. He said he learned the craft at around age 7 from his great-grandmother, Lucinda Pringle, whose mother was an enslaved worker on Laurel Hill Plantation. Badger is Smalls’ former apprentice and now partner whose family is from Round O. The pair are devoted to pursuing and preserving this beloved facet of Gullah heritage and they often pray for the well-being of the basket’s future owner as they sew.

As The Arts Initiative at Palmetto Bluff’s July artists in residence, Smalls and Badger will lead a sweetgrass basket sewing workshop on July 11, in collaboration with the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy, at the Conservancy Classroom in Moreland Village. The duo will share insights into the rich history of the Gullah Geechee culture as they work with sweetgrass and instruct participants in the historical and spiritual art of sweetgrass basket-sewing, culminating in the completion of individual baskets. 

Sweetgrass basket sewer Jery Taylor, is The Palmetto Bluff Arts Initiative’s August Artist in Residence.

Smalls’ and Badger’s work will be on display and available for purchase at FLOW Gallery + Workshop during July. Their baskets can also be seen at The Gullah Sweetgrass Gallery in the Discovery House at the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head.

The extraordinary artistry and exchange of ideas will continue with masterful folk artist  Jery Taylor, the August artist in residence. Taylor began learning the art of sweetgrass sewing from her grandmother at the age of 5 on the Boone Hall Plantation grounds in Mount Pleasant. As she continued to learn and grow, so did her dedication to Gullah-Geechee culture and arts. Her work has been featured on HGTV and the Discovery Channel and included in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian and private collections. 

On August 2, Taylor will continue cultivating and creating with the culturally significant medium she has practiced throughout her career. Participants in her workshop at Wilson Village’s FLOW Gallery will learn hands-on how to create sweetgrass hanging art. Taylor’s work will be on display and available for purchase in FLOW Gallery + Workshop during August as well as at Jery’s Baskets, an artist studio located in the heart of Savannah’s City Market. 

Sweetgrass baskets sewn by Dino Badger and Michael Smalls

“Having learned this art form from my grandmother, I am excited to be able to share this incredible part of my culture with the residents and guests of Palmetto Bluff,” Taylor said.

Showcasing a diverse curation of artists, craftsmen, musicians, and makers, the Arts Initiative at Palmetto Bluff’s vibrant collaboration and Artist in Residency program fosters creativity while striving to forge a broader Lowcountry community united by hands-on educational experiences for residents and guests of Palmetto Bluff as well as neighbors from the greater Bluffton, Hilton Head Island, and Savannah environs.

The innovative programming engages and challenges audiences through shared dialogues and the beauty of the Bluff itself. The Arts Initiative is built upon three foundational pillars: inspiration (embodied by the Artist in Residence Program); invitation (manifested in FLOW Gallery + Workshop, the charming exhibition space in Wilson Village); and installation (building a permanent collection and rotating exhibitions set amidst the Palmetto Bluff landscape). 

FLOW Gallery + Workshop features a series of exhibitions, workshops, and events. It showcases work from the visiting artists in residence and a curated collection of prominent and emerging Southern artists. FLOW welcomes members and guests to foster immersive, hands-on interactions and a deeper appreciation for the artists whose work represents the elements that comprise Palmetto Bluff. 

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