Jery Bennet Taylor

Basket Weaving and Wisdom

Of course you have seen straw or grass baskets before: woven, cylindrical baskets, bowls, and totes of all sizes, the color of cut wheat, perfect for a table or wall display, practical enough for a market tote, or cute enough for a purse. But no baskets can compare to those created by Jery Bennet Taylor, known to Savannah locals and visitors alike as “Ms. Jery.” Jery’s baskets are one of a kind, handcrafted in her City Market studio in downtown Savannah or on the porch of Gullah Grub, where she first began selling her work. You can see in Jery’s work not only her own spirit, patience, and passion, but that of her grandmother and the other women who have passed down to her the art of basket weaving.

“My grandmother and the people in our neighborhood would call it sewing baskets. It’s a form of sewing,” Jery tells the AIMEE LACALLE team during our visit to her studio. “I do the sweetgrass basket, a bulrush basket, a “Jery’s Sweet Rush” basket, and paintings, as well. I had my first painting show in 2007 at Penn Center.”

Penn School was the first black school in the nation for freed slaves, created by two Philadelphia Quaker women in 1862, after Saint Helena Island was captured by Union forces and the island’s plantation owners fled. Penn School—now Penn Center—plays an important role in Jery’s life. At the age of 5, Jery learned the art of sweetgrass basket weaving from her grandmother. Later on in her life, Jery also learned to make bulrush baskets from Jannie Cohen, who was the last living person doing the bulrush basket and who had learned from her father, a Penn School alumni. Now, Jery is the last person alive making bulrush baskets.

Jery has been making her baskets and paintings for decades, and to great acclaim. Her baskets, made out of sweetgrass, palmetto, pine needles, and bulrushes, now grace the shelves of a king in Ghana, the Smithsonian Museum, and a number of celebrities.

“This piece,” she says, looking down at the basket in her lap, “this is representing my grandmother’s age, day, and year she was born. With this particular piece, because it was made about the grandmother who taught me and the woman who I learned the bulrush baskets from, this is representing the two women. This is the traditional style for the Mount Pleasant area, which is the pine straw and the sweetgrass, but this also has bulrushes in it, which represent Ms. Jannie Cohen, and the string is tying the two of them together.” The basket is indeed unique to her others, as a cream-colored string loops rhythmically across the rows. Once you know the story behind the piece, the basket transcends itself, morphing into an artwork narrating the lives of these three women, knit together through history, place, family, and their love of this ancient craft.

A silver spoon handle sticks out of the piece. This, we learn, is the nail bone. “The reason why it’s called a nail bone,” Jery says, “is because when our ancestors came to this country, they first used the bones from an animal rib. Now we use spoon handles and the dish of the spoon but it’s still called a nail bone.” How far back in history and country do these baskets reach? “Some of my pieces, it seems like it goes right back to Africa. Some of these baskets, you can see a pyramid in it.”

“There is something that is supposed to last forever, and if you make it that way, it will. I feel it was my grandmother’s philosophy, and it’s mine.”

Jery works on her latest basket, pausing to speak with customers who wander into her studio, the walls of which are covered equally with her baskets and her brightly colored paintings of scenes from her childhood on Boone Hall Plantation, like crabbing and baptisms. She waxes poetic about her passion for basket weaving, sharing her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the nearby Sea Islands. As she talks about baskets, you get the sense she is talking about life: “This is something that, no matter how much you would like it to be done fast, it’s not going to happen that way for you. You are going to have to take your time, make it right, and you won’t have a problem after that. But if you try to rush it, believe me, you will run into some problems. This is something that can’t be rushed, you got to take your time and do it right. This is something that is supposed to last forever, and if you make it that way, it will. I feel it was my grandmother’s philosophy, and it’s mine.”

Jery’s patience is evidenced in the beauty and grace of her baskets and her being. She has put countless hours into honing her craft, and winnowing her basket weaving practice into wisdom. “When it comes to life,” she says, “you could have a good life, you could have a bad life, but the choice is yours. And that’s with everything. There are some things gonna take time to do, and there are things that you wanna do fast—it’s just not gonna work.”

If, on your next visit to Savannah, you can make time to spend a few minutes with Jery in her City Market studio, we guarantee you will leave with similar pearls of wisdom and a new perspective to apply to your own passions. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll leave with a basket, too.