Michael Smalls and his right-hand man Dino Badger stopped by the Conservancy Classroom to teach us more about one of our favorite pieces of art with a rich Lowcountry history – sweetgrass baskets. Michael is a 7th generation basket-sewer. That’s right, sewer. Not, weaver. Michael learned this art form from his great-grandmother, Lucinda Pringle, whose own mother was an enslaved worker on Mount Pleasant’s Laurel Hill Plantation. As a master sewer, Michael has the talent to not only make beautiful baskets, but to also teach others – right handed and left handed – how to create these intricate works of art. Dino, whom is left-handed, is one of Michael’s students that has also fallen in love with sweetgrass basket-sewing and helps Michael make these baskets.
The duo collects as much sweetgrass as they can during the months of June and July. This is when the grass is not in bloom. If they can’t get enough, they reach out to family and friends in the Mount Pleasant area that collect the grass but do not make baskets out of it. They spread the grass in the sun to get as much of the moisture out of the grass prior to sewing the basket. Then, they use two tools – a pair of scissors and a spoon or nailbone – to create the baskets. They don’t use measurements or a pattern. They allow for the seagrass to naturally flow as the shape of the basket takes form. After a few 8-hour days, their baskets are complete and are named after either their looks for their function.
Their baskets are displayed across the world. From South Carolina State College to as far as Africa, their baskets inspire members of the next generation to learn more. Michael and Dino estimate there are roughly 100 to 150 sweetgrass left in South Carolina. Because of this, they take great pride in teaching the art of basket-sewing to those interested. They teach 3rd and 8th graders the history, art and biology related to sweetgrass baskets and, also host an art workshop for special needs students. Not only is this sharing their love of sweetgrass baskets, but it is also a form of therapy for some of these students.
To learn more about Michael and Dino or to shop the Gullah Sweetgrass Baskets Creations collection, visit their website here.