UPDATE: PBS will broadcast The Quiltmakers of Gees Bend on February 3, 2005. Check your local PBS station for the air date.
Why I Love Quilts
I have a deep passion for folk arts and traditions. I’ve loved quilts in particular for almost twenty years (see these links to previous posts I’ve written about the subject–Quiltmaking: Great American Art Form and Grandma Rose White’s Quilt). My only regret is that I haven’t had the financial means to collect them. But I am very proud to have my grandmother in-law’s 60 year old quilt hanging on our wall.
Why are quilts so meaningful to me? Quilts represent the confluence of many varied skills and reveal much not only about the maker, but about the society which produced her (not too many ‘hims” I’m sorry to say).
America Irby, One Patch,1971
Tinwood Alliance (credit: Steve Pitkin
courtesy, Quilts of Gee’s Bend
& Whitney catalogue
Quilts as Expressions of Human Society
I can remember viewing a quilt exhibit at a musuem devoted to quiltmaking somewhere near Asheville, NC. The exhibition’s focus was on the extraordinary technical skils required in designing quilts. The catalgoue explained that well-designed quilts require great mathematical skills. What was especially striking to me about this is that quilters, at least in the popular imagination, are old and young biddies from the country who have nothing better to do with their time then hold quilting bees. The idea that quilters could create complex designs involving mathematical calculations went far beyond what most people (at least in the past) could conceive. What is intriguing about quilting is that a seemingly ‘domestic’ activity can involve such complex manual dexterity plus mental preparation. Quiltmaking lies at the nexus of the mundane everyday world and the world of the mind.
Quilts also combine great utlity with great beauty. They serve a mundane, but nevertheless intimate function (keeping people warm in their beds) while they can last forever as monuments to a great aesthetic tradition. While quilt designs adhere to certain general traditional styles, they do not reflect any strict academic definitions or categories. This enables the art to embrace improvisation, informality and cultural adaptiveness. In fact, the Talk of the Nation moderator (see link following) of the Quilts of Gee’s Bend calls it “visual jazz.”
Quilts are also deeply personal expressions. I remember a historic quit exhibit I saw years ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in which quilts commemorated marriages, births, birthdays (even the nation’s). They are the ultimate expressions of the meaning of domestic life and the emotional investment of the quilter in it.
When I first read about the Gee’s Bend quilters in the pages of the New York Times (if anyone can provide me with a live link to this article, I’d be grateful), I was first amazed at the quality and beauty of their creations. I was also impressed to learn that this was a generations-old tradition among African-American women in the community. Prior to this, the general public thought of quilting (certainly erroneously) as a vocation of white women.
Quitmaking is, in a way, the great equalizer. In this art form, the woman can achieve the greatness of any other artist, male or female. Black women can artistically express themselves in as profound and aesthetically complex manner as any creative artist of whatever color. The rural quilter achieves the artistic complexity of the most sophisticated urban artist, a tremendous achievement in light of the assumption of cultural deficiency and intellectual backwardness that once informed society’s prejudices about rural life).
The Quilts of Gees Bend
Gees Bend is a small, isolated rural Alabama hamlet populated by the descendants of freed slaves. The town sits on an island in the Alabama River and is only accessible by ferry (which only recently reopened after decades). The quiltmaking tradition here goes back generations and is always a profoundly social and communal endeavor. This is true as well with all quiltmaking, but given the social isolation of Gees Bend, this factor takes on added significance. During the tumultuous 1960s when Blacks were reembracing their rights and liberties, the women of Gees Bend particpated in Freedom Quilting Bees, which were the ultimate confluence of the domestic and political lives of Black people.
Often the quilters sang as they worked and some of their music has been collected at the site linked below:
“Their favorite pasttime besides quilting is music, notably gospel, spirituals and blues. Their quiltmaking like the music they love bears hallmarks of improvisation.”
–from Gee’s Bend Cooperative spirituals
Another telling comment about Gees Bend quilting comes from Mensie Lee Pettaway, who describes her “philosophy of quiltmaking” this way:
“A lot of people make quilts just for your bed or for to keep you warrm. But a quilt is more. It represents safekeeping, it represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history.” –quoted in Whitney Museum’s Quilts of Gee’s Bend, pg. 9.
The Corcoran Gallery site (The Quilts of Gees Bend) provides additional interesting background material about the quilts and quilters of Gees Bend and the society from which they derive:
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend features a selection of twentieth-century quilts produced by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small, isolated community in southwestern Alabama. The inhabitants of Gee’s Bend populate a curving peninsula in the Alabama River and descend primarily from the former slaves of the Gee and Pettway Plantations. The origins of the Benders, as they call themselves, date to the early 1800s. Historically an agricultural society where the women plowed and planted and also cooked, kept house, and reared their large families, the Benders lived at a subsistence level well into the twentieth century. The programs of the New Deal in the 1930s and 40s helped these farmers survive, modernize, and, finally, take ownership of the property they had cultivated for generations. Although conditions improved, the community continued to have little contact with the outside world until the 1960s, evolving its own cultural and artistic modes of expression.
Before I continue, I have to say that I am not a folklorist nor trained as a textile artist. These are merely my own feelings and generalizations gathered over the time I’ve spent looking at, and thinking about quilts. If someone professionally trained in the field finds errors or distortions here, I’d be glad to be educated further.
In researching this post, I’ve come across some wonderful and varied resources about the qulters of Gees Bend:
NPR’s Talk of the Nation produced an excellent audio piece during the Whitney exhibition, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.
For a visual tour of the quiltmaking process courtesy of the Freedom Quilting Bee visit ruraldevelopment.org.
To purchase a Gees Bend quilt (Delia Bennett) reproduction, visit the anthropologie.com site.
J.R. Moehringer’s Los Angeles Times tale of life in Gee’s Bend, Mary Lee’s Vision, won a 2000 Pulitzer for Feature-Writing.
The Whitney Museum Gees Bend exhibition catalogue represents the first national exhibition of the handiwork of the Gees Benders (and was the subject of the Times review I mentioned earlier). Some of the quilts pictured here derive from this catalogue.
Here is the Corcoran Gallery’s The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit information. The Gallery also offers How We Got Over: Sacred Songs of Gee’s Bend a double CD of the songs of the Gee’s Bend quilters (to purchase click on accompanying CD cover art).
Witness the compelling artistic vision of the quilters of Gee’s Bend in the following photo gallery:
Annie Mae Young, Medallion,1976
Nettie Jane Kennedy, Housetop,1955
Martin Luther King Quilting Bee, Coat of Many Colors,
Loretta Pettway, Medallion, 1960
Mary L. Bennett, Housetop–four-block variation, 1965
Arcola Pettway, Bars variation, 1976
Mary Lee Bendolph, Work Clothes,2002
Gloria Hoppins Housetop-–center medallion
Jessie T.Pettway, Bars and string-
Mensie Lee PettwayStrips 2003
Annie Mae Young, Strips, 1975 Tinwood Alliance
Ella Mae Irby, Texas Star, 1973