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Basket artistry is family tie

(ran HT, PT edition)

On the outskirts of town in Joseph Foreman Jr.'s small frame house with a slanting porch, an array of sweet-smelling sweet grass baskets covers the floor.

Some are round, some oval, some flat. Some have the shape and grace of large pots. Some have lids, and some have handles that rise from the body like a twisting cobra.

On either side of the baskets sit a father and a son, and in part the story of sea grass basketry is their story. Beyond them, it is the story of families and generations, of a tradition and a people.

The story tells of a centuries-old craft that crossed the ocean with slaves from rice-growing areas of West Africa to rice-growing areas of the Carolina and Georgia coast, and of how basket-making changed from a utilitarian skill in plantation times to become a prized folk art form.

To Joseph Foreman Sr., it was just a natural part of living in the low country where the sweet grass grows. The sweet grass used in basket making is a sweet-smelling variety of the sea grasses that grow in coastal regions.

"My grandmother learned me to do it," recalls the wiry, dignified 74-year-old gentleman, who wears overalls and speaks English flavored with Gullah, an African-American language indigenous to the low country.

"I was weaving until I growed up," he continues. "I quit with it. My wife weaved. It was awful slow and didn't look to me like my type of work. I did that on heavy equipment." As for basket-making, it was "do it and quit, do it and quit."

But he also helped teach his 10 children, four of whom make baskets.

When not selecting leaves, coiling them into desired shapes and stitching them together with palm leaves, Joseph Sr. was involved in the hard, often dangerous task of gathering the necessary materials: pine needles, palmetto palm leaves, bulrushes. And sweet grass itself, increasingly difficult to find because of the ravages of storms and development.

One area rich in grass was St. Simons Island, Ga. "It was the beautifulest thing you ever seen, but honey, they was so hard to pull, and more rattlesnakes than you ever seen. They live in the mounds where the grass grow."

Joseph Jr. also grew up weaving and finding grass. But it took the hip-looking 50-year-old, who sports a green sweatshirt, cowboy boots and a gold chain, some time to return to his heritage after years in the North.

As a teenager, "I got old enough to get away. I was the first one in my neighborhood to get a license. I had a '57 Chevy _ and the girls, whoa!" he remembers.

In 1992, he left his fast-paced life in New York to return home where his mother, Evelyina, of the Manigault family of famous basket-makers, lay dying. Around his neck, Joseph Jr. now wears a spoon that she used as a tool to separate coils while stitching.

It is more than a symbolic gesture. Not only did he join the proud tradition of his family, including his older sister, Mary Jackson, whose exquisite work is shown in top galleries and commands top dollar, but he himself became, as he unabashedly says, an artist.

His work is on display in places from Charleston's Convention & Visitor's Bureau to galleries in New York.

All his baskets show his "signature" _ one color (from green or gold palmetto leaf) on the inside, the other on the outside. The intricate, large baskets can take two months to make and command prices up to $3,000.

It's a far cry from the earliest plantation sweet grass baskets, large round "fanners" used for winnowing rice or for putting sleeping babies in outdoors.

The original uses of plantation-era baskets passed, but by the early 20th century, with the burgeoning arts and crafts movement, their artistry was recognized. New shapes, such as the round "missionary" bag, hat boxes, cookie jars and baskets for cakes, sewing and flowers, came into being, and white customers began to buy them.

Much of the resurgence was in the town of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., home of Joseph Foreman Sr.

In the 1930s, when cars started passing by, vendors began putting their artful basket on stands along State Highway 17. They have become part of the landscape, as have the colorful "basket ladies" along Charleston's King St.

Even as sweet grass baskets have moved inside and uptown, their beauty is still defined by naturalness and simplicity that ties them to their roots.

Says Joseph Foreman Jr., "When you make a basket, you put a piece of yourself in it."