We have a guest writer, today. Bob Ciminel has shared one of his memories of the lowcountry with us. This story is from a few years ago, so you probably won’t find Bea at one of the many basket stands that decorate our roadways, but you may find her daughter! Thank you Bob for sharing your story!
The South Carolina Low Country is home to an art form that is quite unique in the United States. I’m referring to the woven sweet grass baskets made by people living along U.S. Highway 17, the “Ocean Highway,” north of Charleston. Many of the basket weavers are descendants of slaves who brought their weaving skills from Africa. The slaves made large woven baskets to hold their babies while they worked in the fields.
One weaver of whom we are quite familiar is Bea Coxum. Bea lives in Mount Pleasant, across the Cooper River from Charleston. I spent five years in Charleston and never bought a sweet grass basket. My priorities were different then; centering on Scotch and women, in that order. I remember seeing the basket stands along the highway, but the thought of buying one never crossed my mind. Driving home after an all-nighter in Charleston required all the attention I could muster to keep the car centered on the two lane bridge between Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island. Once, I dozed off momentarily and almost wound up as crab bait. No, sweet grass baskets were not on my A-list in 1967.
My wife and I visit Bea’s basket stand every year during our vacations to Pawleys Island. Every day except Sunday, you can usually find Bea sitting at the Original Pawleys Island Hammock Shops where she spends the better part of the day in the heat and humidity selling her beautiful baskets.
Bea creates her baskets (build and assemble just don’t seem to fit) from sweet grass, pine needles, and palmetto fronds. You can spot one of her baskets by the pattern and tightness of the weave. Sometimes Bea travels as far south as Savannah to gather her materials. This was the case last year when the Carolina Low Country was plagued by drought and wildfires. Unable to replenish her raw materials, Bea was really limited in what she could weave over the winter. Bea was also ill, which further affected her productivity. That probably explains why she had so few items on display when we stopped by to see her this year.
Bea doesn’t sign her work. People familiar with the art form immediately recognize one of Bea’s baskets. So I was surprised when I saw one or two baskets at her stand that didn’t look like Bea’s handiwork. We asked her about the differences in the baskets. She said she is teaching her daughter how to weave. It is a long apprenticeship. Try to picture Van Gogh teaching someone how to paint the world as he saw it, or Ansel Adams explaining to an understudy how to capture the beauty and grandeur of the American West on black and white film.
Sweet grass basket-making is a dying art. The younger generation doesn’t want to spend their mornings in the woods collecting materials, or their afternoons sitting in the sun selling baskets, or their humid evenings weaving items that may sell for less than $50 after the tourists whine about how expensive they are for things made of grass. The younger generation can make more money working in an air-conditioned McDonald’s or Burger King.