Mary Jackson usually gets to work around 10 a.m. She stays up late working and watching Dateline. Her studio is on the second floor of a building made of cinder blocks and wood. Behind the building is the clamor of industry. The other side roars with traffic from Highway 17. There are empty shipping containers in the driveway.
On the side of the building, next to the sidewalk that leads to an antiques shop on the ground floor, she's planted sweetgrass. It's green and thin and wiry. Some of it has begun to flower — long lean purple fluff, a sign that harvest time is over.
The door to her studio has no doorknob. It's steel and black. She says it's a rough neighborhood. She doesn't want her picture taken outside because of that. She doesn't want to smile for the camera, either, because a cap on one of her teeth has crumbled and fallen off. After our interview, she'll see a dentist to get it fixed.
In her studio is a small square wooden table. On the table is a cordless telephone. On Tuesday, Sept. 16, she got a call at about 11 a.m. It was a man's voice. At the end of the conversation, he told her she'd never hear from him again. She cried.
"Is this Mary?"
"Are you sitting down?"
"I think you'd better sit down."
"Mary, you are the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship."
"Is this true?
"Yes, it's true. Do you know about the money?"
Stoney Jackson, Mary's husband, thought there was a lizard in the studio. Mary hates lizards and other crawly things. Whenever there's one in her studio, Stoney comes to shoo it away. This time was different, though. Mary looked wild and nervous. She was shaking. Are those tears on your face? She could tell just one person about the man on the telephone. Stoney. The official news would come a week later. April, her daughter and business manager, didn't know.
"Aside from the obvious financial benefits, the award is so high-profile that it bumps artists who may be known only to locals or experts to another level entirely," Patricia Cohen, The New York Times reporter who wrote about the foundation's announcement of 25 fellowships last week, told me. "It gives them more visibility, a kind of authority, and a kind of imprimatur of excellence."
I don't know anything about baskets. Mary Jackson's face doesn't change. She patiently explains. A basket's coils are called threads. Sweetgrass, bulrush, or pine needles. Men traditionally used bulrush. It's coarser and harder. Women used sweetgrass. It's softer and more flexible. You use palmetto to lash the threads together. You start at the bottom and coil your way up. It can take a long time. Mary has the time. She gives in to time. I imagine her weaving threads, slowing her pulse. As if in sync with the earth's vibrations.
It's $500,000. But that pales in comparison to the prize's prestige. Mary Jackson is now in an elite group — scientists, doctors, engineers, social activists, journalists, novelists, and visual and performing artists.
Nicknamed the "genius grant," it's given to those "who inspire new heights in human achievement," says Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation. "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 1981. Artists and writers include pianist Stephen Hough, jazz violinist Regina Carter, novelist Thomas Pynchon, artist Kara Walker, journalist Katherine Boo, choreographer Paul Taylor, filmmakers John Sayles and Errol Morris, and the late novelist David Foster Wallace.
Mary Jackson is tactile. She feels objects to understand them. Her touch is refined. Her hands precise. A basket's coils are the same diameter. The lashes, taken from the young and tender tops of a palmetto tree, are the same width apart. They are simple and elegant and restrained. It's done mostly by feel.
"So you coil threads around 'til you're done?"
"And you make each thread out of strands of grass or pine needle?"
"And you wrap each thread with strips of palmetto?"
"It must take you forever to finish a basket."
"You have to be patient."
"But this is no normal patience, like waiting in the dentist's waiting room. This is waiting-for-the-Messiah-to-return kind of patience."
"It's the most sought-after prize, but you can't seek it," says Sasha Anawalt, director of arts journalism programs at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. "You are recognized for who you are."
The "genius grant" is the most cherished in America, she says. It comes out of the blue. Recipients can't expect to get it. They don't even know who nominates them for the award. The process is kept secret.
Winners usually do work having a social benefit. It serves others. Work like Mary Jackson's "carries history," Anawalt says. "If someone came down from the cosmos, he would see that she is working on a higher plane.
"That's what this means in the art world — it's such a big deal."
What's so special? asks Kenneth Trapp, a former curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Baskets are everywhere. You find them at the Dollar Tree and on Market Street. What's all the fuss about?
Mary Jackson's baskets are engineered architectural feats, Trapp says. They are deeply restrained. Many basket makers put shells and stones in their work. Mary doesn't. She sticks with traditional designs, but expands those designs. Trapp oversaw the Smithsonian's acquisition of some of her baskets in the early 1980s. They are elegant in form, simple in color, reserved in sensibility, he says, and they adhere to a tradition, aspects hard to appreciate.
"They are perfect when they don't need to be perfect," Trapp says. "Hollywood has ruined the term 'classic.' But that's really what Mary's work is. Some call it old-timey and even passé. In fact, it's literally classic."
I wonder: Is Mary Jackson now Charleston's most prestigious artist? Jonathan Green is pretty highly regarded. So is Pat Conroy. But neither has won a "genius grant." Neither has been set apart for recognition like this.
Has Charleston been paying attention to its indigenous artists? Are we not seeing what we have while pining away for what we don't have? Indeed, we have no museum or gallery or space devoted to traditional folk art.
If Mary Jackson is the most prestigious artist, does that mean, to the rest of the country, the Charleston art scene has an African-American face?
If Lowcountry art means traditional folk art, then traditional folk art means black art — art borne of practical need and evolved into beautiful objects, art carried on through generations, going all the way back to West Africa.
I worry. Kenneth Trapp says it's understandable. There's only so much to be done about ignorance, he says. Many people have already made up their minds about Mary and her accomplishments.
Because she's black. I'm concerned. Because she's Gullah. I have doubts. Because attitudes of white supremacy will naturally try to taint beauty.
I can't convince racists that Mary Jackson and her classic basket making are amazing. I can't persuade bigots that perhaps we should take a second look at Charleston's wealth of unheralded assets — that is, its artisans and craftsmen.
"You can speak to those who care and that's it," Trapp says.
Race plays a part in this, I tell Sasha Anawalt, of USC's Annenberg School. In telling the story of Mary Jackson. How do I overcome those who'd believe she got this just because she's black? How do I illustrate with enough clarity that this award is pure as well as prestigious? That it really means something?
She says I can't.
She says I'm taking a risk, and I know she's right. Yes, Charleston's national persona might have a black face, for the time being, but in trying to overcome racism I'll end up encouraging it. It's a paradox. Best to stick with the story.
You don't want to take anything away from her, she says.
I'll be careful, I say.
"How do you know when you have enough sweetgrass in a thread?"
"I feel it."
"You don't measure it?"
"Do you measure anything?"
"Do you do everything by feel?"
"I look at it carefully to make sure the colors are right."
"How do you know when it's right?"
"By feeling it."
Mary Jackson is quiet. She answers questions. Not much else. Her voice is gentle. As if her carefully chosen words last longer punctuated by silence.
She looks tired. She didn't sleep well. It's been that way for a week. On the day word got out, she received around 50 phone calls. She's never gotten that many. The phone rings when I arrive. She puts it in the other room.
Her hands are small. Strong and soft. Except for the calluses on her right thumb and forefinger. That's where she pulls the threads. She's in her early 60s. How many threads have passed through those hands? How many baskets?
She is like her baskets. I think so. Kenneth Trapp, the former Smithsonian curator, thinks so, too. The depth of her humanity, he says, is obvious and clear.
"She's doing something done before recorded history," he says.
If she's conscious of that, it's hard to tell.
"I share my feelings," she says.
Charleston native Mary Jackson wins âgenius grantâ from Charleston City Paper on Vimeo.