Corey Alston and Sweetgrass Basket Artistry: A guarded trade, diminishing resources and a time-honored art form are only part of the story.
“If you wanted something from China, just order something from China. If want something like that then order an Asian basket. But if you want a basket of America’s blood, sweat and tears; of a culture off the coast of Carolina, then you know where to get that from.” -Corey Alston
What are Sweetgrass Baskets?
An original sweetgrass basket that is woven in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia is more than a beautiful souvenir. It’s more than an inspiring work of art. It’s more than the oldest Afro-American art form in the US. It is truly a piece of living history that is more than a millennia old.
Sweetgrass basket artist Corey Alston knows the legacy, heritage and history he is responsible for with every single basket he creates. In his own words, he states “ I know what I got.” And he honors that culture and legacy by adhering to the trade, as taught, without taking short cuts or cutting corners.
The Gullah Geechee communities of the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia are still weaving baskets today as they have been woven for over 1000 years. One. Thousand. Years. The aura of awe and mystique that surround these baskets is certainly grounded in the fact that these baskets have outlasted regimes, monarchies, governments, technology, even whole civilizations.
Corey Alston is one of the new generation of basket artists who is keeping this generations old art form alive. I think I see his face every time I open one of my House Beautiful, Veranda or Garden & Gun magazines. Corey is everywhere. And for good reason. He isn’t only a basket artist, he is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, conservationist, educator, husband and father.
A Star is Born
But he wasn’t always the superstar he is now.
As a matter of fact, Corey didn’t learn the trade in the traditional way. Corey started learning to weave when he was 17 years old, when his then-girlfriend, now wife, starting showing him. His wife WAS taught in the traditional way. And that is when a mother and grandmother teach their daughters beginning at around age 7-8. As a matter of fact, his wife came from a very prominent family in the Gullah community. His wife’s grandmother was Mary Jane Manigault who was honored by the National Endowment of Arts and was held in very high regard by those in the community. The above link is piece that says she taught anyone interested in making baskets. But in order to get past the gate, and learn at a deeper level, you have to have a sponsor. Basically, having a sponsor means to get the blessing of a member in the community. This blessing isn’t a formal process but one that is necessary for acceptance in the community. The practice of having this blessing is there to protect the integrity of what was being taught and to keep the art form from being diluted. Ms. Manigault is the one who sponsored Corey to continue his education in basket weaving. She knew him as a local from the community and had known him from the time he was a small boy.
But even then, Corey didn’t go all in on a career in basket weaving.
Fast forward 2-3 years, by this time he had married his girlfriend and they’d just had their first child. He was working for Shell and they were outsourcing jobs to Mexico for cheaper labor. Corey had a choice. Either move his family to Charlotte to keep his job or find another job. He and his wife were planning to move their young family to Charlotte. But before they went, Corey’s mother-in-law asked him to spend an afternoon down at the Market running the family business with the other basket weavers. Based on his love of people and his magnetic personality, she thought that Corey might find fulfillment working on an art form he loved and surrounded by people. He agreed. And she was right. Corey came home from the Market after that afternoon and announced to his surprised wife that they would not be moving to Charlotte after all. Rather than taking the safe, secure route, Corey knew he belonged in the culture he grew up around. He knew that he would go to work preserving and continuing this legacy.
To say he has flourished in his chosen line of work would be to put it mildly. Corey not only weaves beautiful works of art, but he is involved in community education about the Gullah Geechee heritage and culture. But even in good times, the job is not without its challenges.
Corey has also become a conservationist due to the fact that the marshes where much of the reeds are grown for the baskets are being developed thus decreasing access to the resources needed to keep the art form alive. Corey understands growth and doesn’t begrudge it but also works with outside organizations to find and dedicate tracts of land for growth and harvesting of resources needed for their art form. And it’s not just reeds from the marsh land, they use pine needles and palm fronds too.
Corey told a story how a client had given him tons of material to create two custom pieces. He didn’t need all of the materials so he gave what he didn’t use back to the community so that other basket artists had access to free materials. When he shared the story on his Instagram, the client called him up irate that he had given away the materials. Corey had neglected to state in the social media post that he had kept what he needed for his project. Oops. Everything went back to good once that was explained. :-)
I was dying to ask Corey what he thought about the knock-off sweetgrass products that I am seeing pop up everywhere. I have seen sweetgrass products in IKEA and other stores all the way up here in PA. If I’m being honest, I didn’t realize that anyone outside of the coastal regions in SC and Georgia even knew what sweetgrass was.
When I asked him his thought on knock-offs, Corey just laughed his very contagious laugh and said competition is good. He doesn’t mind knock-offs. And then he dropped a nuclear truth bomb that put this issue in very clear terms. “If you wanted something from China, just order something from China. If want something like that then order an Asian basket. But if you want a basket of America’s blood, sweat and tears; of a culture off the coast of Carolina, then you know where to get that from.”
Mic drop. I cannot add anything more to that.
If you do want a “basket of America’s blood, sweat and tears,” you can find Corey on Instagram at corey_alston_sweetgrassbasket.
Or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Be prepared to have your mind blown.