Art rarely feels so personal. Few artists walk through galleries singing softly to their creations. Few collectors share gentle hugs and familial affection with their protégées. But when the artwork currently hanging on museum walls previously kept bodies warm on cold nights, when the vibrant colors and textures used to be someone’s everyday clothing, the personal element becomes unavoidable. Although most viewers won’t have the opportunity to meet the quilters themselves or hear their heartfelt spirituals echo through the gallery rooms, the Gee’s Bend quilts currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art “speak for themselves,” as quilter Louisiana Bendolph put it.
Gee’s Bend, a small rural town (population 750) in Alabama, remained relatively isolated through the 20th century, thanks in part to geography and partly to politics. Many of the residents trace their ancestry to slaves who worked the cotton fields and became sharecroppers after the Civil War, eventually acquiring land through Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived in Gee’s Bend, inspiring voting rights activism which led to the arrests of a number of protestors, losses of jobs and bank loans, and the cancellation of the town’s most direct access to the outside world – a ferry that crossed the Alabama River. Confined to a river-bound peninsula with only three cars to traverse the long, unpaved road, Gee’s Bend’s isolation increased the community’s need to share the burden and make do with what was available. In the midst of political turmoil and subsistence living, quilt-making traditions thrived.
Mary Lee Bendolph says, “We didn’t know we was [sic] doing artwork; only thing we was doing was making quilts to stay warm and keep our families warm.” Although women made “pretty quilts” to sell, using popular quilt patterns, and entered into business deals with major department stores to provide fashionable patchwork quilts and corduroy pillows, they continued expressing their creativity in the unique quilts they made for their own families. When art collectors began seeking out the “everyday” quilts, many quilters couldn’t believe that their private visions would attract such universal acclaim. Mary Lee didn’t accept that her quilts were artwork until she first saw them on display in the landmark 2002 exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In Gee’s Bend, neighbors would visit each other when they had quilts hanging outside to air – quilters enjoyed seeing what others were creating – but it took seeing her own quilts hanging on gallery walls rather than fencerows to convince her that they were indeed impressive visual expressions. Since the 2002 show, younger quilters have joined in the art-making, crafting a new wave of quilts that continue to push and expand the Gee’s Bend tradition.
The PMA’s show Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt covers a range of Gee’s Bend quilt-making, combining antique quilts with contemporary ones, looking at visual relationships across generations and highlighting the oeuvres of several important quilters. Although individual working styles emerge, the communal vision of the quilts stands out as the close-knit, often related, quilters share ideas and materials. As a whole, the quilts demonstrate a love of organic geometry, with many “Blocks and Strips,” “Housetops,” and “Bricklayers” expressed through irregular edges and un-square corners. The quilters favor asymmetry and unusual juxtapositions of shapes, so that an otherwise rectangular layout of blocks often contains a striking lone triangle out or an irregular pattern variation. They use color with the vivacity of an abstract expressionist painter, with accent colors that slice through monochromatic fields and layers of unrelated tones that blend into complex harmonies. Drawing inspiration from the world around them, many of the quilters abstract landscapes and architectural structures, resulting in quilts that share affinities with paintings by Mondrian, Klee and Diebenkorn.
In an art culture that routinely revisits the discussion about the relationship (or lack thereof) between crafts and fine arts, the quilts erase those theoretical boundaries, managing to marry craftsmanship with concept, community with individuality, materiality with essence, functionality with transcendence. The quilts are stunning, exuberant, the strong voices of a vibrant community.
(Image: Irene Williams (American, born 1920), Blocks and Strips, 2003. Polyester double-knit, 100×72 inches. Collection of the Tinwood Alliance. Photo: Steven Pitkin, Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL.)
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, September 17, 2008