Master of the Craft
By Josh Green
Photography by Brian Austin Lee
Yvonne Grovner preserves a part of Gullah Geechee culture, one coveted basket at a time
As she does most years, Yvonne Grovner hosted a three-hour basketmaking class last February for snowbirds and other visitors at the Jekyll Island Campground.
As usual, the class was full.
Under her watchful eye, Grovner’s two dozen pupils that day—like those she continues to teach in places around Georgia and the more regular disciples she leads at her Sapelo Island home—shaped baskets of sweetgrass and sawtooth palmetto. They left with something even more impressive: an appreciation for a threatened craft that’s integral to the Gullah Geechee, descendants of Africans once enslaved in coastal communities from North Carolina to Florida.
The type of basketmaking that Grovner utilizes began in Africa, and came with the slaves that were brought to the American South in the 1600s. The first baskets, known as “fanners,” were used to separate the grain from the husks of a new crop that soon would become a major money-maker for Southern plantation owners—rice. Others were used to carry food, and to cradle babies while their mothers worked the fields. Still others had different uses, from straining foods to covering the head.
Basketmaking was passed on to generations of American slaves through the mid 1800s, but faltered after the Civil War wiped out much of the rice industry. The skill soon fell more into the realm of art and crafts, regarded more for its beauty and nostalgia than its practicality. Throughout the 20th century, artisans sold their wares along coastal highways in the South, but hurricanes and storms often devastated the makeshift stands.
Grovner, a master basketmaker with clientele from New York to Colorado, is among the most prolific—and one of the few—skilled weavers remaining in Georgia. “You know, it’s a dying art, a tradition that came from Africa,” says Grovner, 59. “You don’t want it to die. You want to continue it, keep it going.”
Today, baskets are a side gig for Grovner. The grandmother of two works full-time as a Georgia Department of Natural Resources island tour guide. She’s also a cookbook author, and she’s a first-responder on an island with no doctors.
But at night, while watching TV, she keeps the art alive, cranking out up to 15 baskets a month. A native of nearby Crescent, about an hour north of Jekyll, Grovner moved to Sapelo four decades ago and marveled at baskets crafted by her husband’s uncle, the masterful Allen Green. He’s regarded as a local treasure, the Rembrandt of basketmaking, with work featured at the Smithsonian. Two years before his death in 1998, Green finally agreed to teach Grovner his techniques. She’s passed on those skills now to her daughter, husband, and other friends, aided by a grant from the Sapelo Foundation.
For materials, Grovner collects sweetgrass near ditches and snips the stems of abundant palmettos. With little more than scissors, a flattened and sharpened paint-can opener for poking holes, and an old-timey, safely dulled knife, she shaves down the palmetto stems, begins a small base with a knot, and builds outward from there. Sometimes, she incorporates handles for variety or pine needles for color. A basket the size of a dinner plate takes at least 10 hours of stitching time alone. Grovner’s work fetches her anywhere from $50 to her record, $800.
“You have to have a whole lot of patience to make a basket,” Grovner says. “I got patience. Also, I like artwork. And it’s good therapy for your hands. It’s real relaxing to sit and work on baskets.”
One repeat customer is Bill Hodges, a retired environmental engineer. His home on Sapelo is dotted with handwoven baskets used for holding everything from bread and vegetables to spare change. Others are just for show.
“Everybody makes them a little differently, some a little fancier, but [Grovner’s] are unique—the true, traditional basket,” says Hodges. “They’re a cultural artifact of this area, this region, and have been made for hundreds of years, basically the same way. I just enjoy being able to tie the people to the culture.”
You can contact Grovner about her baskets at firstname.lastname@example.org or (912) 485-2262.
Connecting on Jekyll
On the island’s south end, at St. Andrews Beach Park, visitors can learn more about Gullah Geechee culture at The Wanderer Memory Trail, which relays the story of one of America’s last known slave ships and where it landed (illegally) in 1858. Onboard were more than 400 enslaved Africans, for whom basketmaking was a timeworn tradition.
More on The Wanderer can be found at Mosaic, the Jekyll Island Museum, where a replica hull of the ship is on display and you can hear accounts of those who survived the voyage. Also at Mosaic; a display of baskets made by local Gullah Geechee artists, including Grovner.
Appeared In: 31·81 The Magazine of Jekyll Island Fall/Winter 2019