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S.C. basket maker wins genius grant

A South Carolina basket maker and a family physician who rebuilt an Alabama health clinic after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina are among 25 recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.”

The $500,000 fellowships are being announced today by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Recipients may use the money however they wish.

Sweetgrass basket maker Mary Jackson, who has been weaving all her life, said a $500,000 genius fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation will give her more studio time to create new interpretations of a centuries-old art.

“To receive this is something I am very excited about and I'm sure it will bring new attention to the art form in general,” said Jackson, 63, of Johns Island, S.C.

Jackson is one of 25 fellows who will receive $500,000 each over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Among the other winners were an architectural historian and a violin virtuoso.

Jackson, known worldwide for baskets, has made her living as a sweetgrass basketmaker for three decades.

Weaving the baskets is a West African tradition handed down from the time of slavery in which artisans entwine the slender sweetgrass with such things as palmetto fronds, bulrushes and pine needles.

“I know I will probably take my work to a higher level – things I have wanted to do but have not done in terms of doing new designs,” said Jackson, whose work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among others.

“There are designs I have had in mind to do for a long time but my work has kept me very busy and this will give me some more time in the studio,” she said.

Jackson, who grew up in Mount Pleasant, weaves in a studio that is closed to the public on Johns Island. Her baskets are in private collections across the nation and one was presented to Prince Charles when he visited Charleston in 1990.

Jackson has long known about the foundation, but never thought she would get a call telling her she had won, as she did last week.

“I was not expecting this at all,” she said. “I've always known about it, but never did I have any knowledge or expectation of someone calling me. It's a real thrill.”

Dr. Regina Benjamin said the money will help rebuild her rural health clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., which serves 4,400 patients.

It was rebuilt by volunteers after being destroyed by Katrina, only to burn down months later.

“The patients came by and they were crying,” said Benjamin, 51, remembering one woman who handed her an envelope with a $7 donation to rebuild. The new clinic is about half built, she said.

“If she can find $7, I can figure out the rest,” Benjamin said. “The patients I treat have their own disasters. Hopefully this grant will help them in some way. It will be as much theirs as it is mine.”

The MacArthur Foundation names the fellows, who are recommended to the foundation's board by a 12-member selection committee.

Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said he makes several calls a year to recipients – including at least four this year – and winners are usually shocked.

“Generally, there's a pause and expressions of disbelief,” he said. “I've had people drop the phone or say they need a minute because they feel weak.”

Seven previous MacArthur grant recipients went on to receive Nobel prizes, Fanton said.

A complete list of the recipients and more information about them is available at the MacArthur Foundation Web site: www.macfound.org.

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