As a youngster, Jeannette Lee learned the art of sweetgrass basket making from her mother and grandmother. The activity was an essential part of her childhood, and often provided a significant portion of her family’s income. “When there were no jobs in the Mt. Pleasant area, my family would make baskets and take the ferry over to Charleston to sell them in the market,” she said.
Sweetgrass basket making is a tradition specific to the South Carolina coast. It came to the state with enslaved West Africans from the “rice coast” (Now Sierra Leone). Their knowledge of rice production, including basket-making techniques, was essential to the economic success of the colony. For many years, the baskets used in the processing of rice reflected this and remained constant in their utilitarian forms. In the 1930’s, rice production methods changed, and tourism began to increase in the United States. To attract this new market, sweetgrass basket makers began transforming their craft into a purely decorative art. The variety of styles that they practiced is reflected in Lee’s work. “Imagination determines what I make. I might see a pot in a store and go back home, visualize the pot’s shape, and try to make a similar basket,” she said.
The pride Lee takes in her work comes from learning the art in the family context. “I remember when we made baskets, and if we didn’t do it right, my mama would rip it up and say to do it the right way. She didn’t want anything that looked like the cat had just played with it,” she said.
The quality and determination evident in Lee’s basket-making skills are reflected in her life’s work. She is coordinator of the Original Sweetgrass Market Place Coalition, has served on South Carolina’s Children’s Foster Care Review Board, and has been recognized for outstanding service to her community by many civic and religious organizations. The quest for creativity and perfection in sweetgrass basket making is a driving force for Lee. She is a tenacious and motivating advocate for the preservation and dissemination of the art that she learned as a child and continues to pursue and promote. “Sweetgrass baskets are a part of our heritage, a tradition that we will not let die,” she said. Gaillard-Lee received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in 2000.