Artisan Aims to Keep Gullah Tradition Alive with Basket Weaving
On any given day, the Charleston City Market is a bustling place filled with artisans making unique goods. One of the staples at the market are sweetgrass baskets—crafted by various artisans throughout the market, these baskets have one thing in common: Gullah culture.
For Mount Pleasant local, Corey Alston, basket-weaving is his way of preserving the Gullah tradition and culture in the Lowcountry.
The sweetgrass baskets have been a part of Alston’s family for five generations and he picked up the skill himself at age 17, when his girlfriend, who is now his wife, taught him.
If you visit the market, you’ll find Alston and his sister Carlene Habersham at their booth, “Gullah Sweetgrass Basket,” located at the entrance on Meeting Street. Here, they display work from various artisans in their family. Baskets of all shapes and sizes, as well as various pieces of art made from sweetgrass as well—fans, roses, coasters, even earrings.
Alston’s grandmother started running the booth back in the 1970s and over time, they made their way to the front of the market. Alston describes the front spot as an honor and something that was earned in part for their storytelling ability.
He clarifies that although you can find many of the baskets being sold at the market and along Broad Street, the market was not the original place the baskets were sold.
“These baskets and their history were first brought to the Charleston area, Mount Pleasant specifically, and began at Boone Hall. When slaves came over from West Africa, they brought this piece of their culture and used the baskets for different tools—to gather, separate rice seeds and make daily jobs easier,” Alston says.
Back as early as the 1940s, if you rode along U.S. Route 17, you’d notice various stands along the sides of the road selling the baskets. Many of these stands still operate today.
For Alston, basket weaving is his way of keeping the Gullah culture alive and not letting the industry go silent.
“Once you realize how unique your culture is, you find avenues to keep it alive and relevant. Being an artisan lets me do this in different ways,” he says.
He explains that various avenues for keeping the culture alive differ from region to region—some have Gullah influences in their food, others have the craft of blacksmithing. Basket weaving is Lowcountry specific.
When he’s not at the market, Alston works with the Charleston community through libraries, museums and schools to ensure that Gullah stories are told and taught. Children grow up understanding the rich culture that’s part of the place in which they live.
Alston has also branched into the realm of photography, Gullah Woven Photos, where he features sweetgrass baskets in Lowcountry settings
While he continues to do the traditional designs, Alston constantly adds new patterns and designs to keep the art form fresh. He got the community involved in this by recently releasing a 3D app, “Build Your Sweetgrass Basket,” which allows one to design a unique basket. The user chooses the colors, designs and sizes and from that, Alston creates a custom piece of art.
One of his latest creations is the Unity Rose. Representing peace, harmony, unity, acceptance and trust, the piece is rapidly growing in popularity through word of mouth and social media. The objective: Take a snapshot (selfie) of yourself, the Unity Rose and someone who is different than you—whatever those differences may be—religion, physicality, age or any other kind of difference—and post to the Unity page at Facebook.com/UnityAsOne.
Alston’s stand at Charleston City Market in downtown Charleston has a steady stream of patrons—regulars and visitors alike—and they wave as they pass by. Others gather to hear the stories behind the pieces.
Alston lends a hand in keeping the Gullah Culture alive.