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Pattern Recognition
Legendary Quilts From Gee's Bend, Ala., Finally Visit Baltimore
Quilt by Mary Lee Bendolph

 

Quilt by Loretta Pettway

 

Quilt by Magdelene Wilson

 

FULL QUILT: Dramatic designs from (from top) Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Pettway, and Magdelene Wilson.

Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

Following their 2002 debut at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the oft-quoted New York Times declared the unique quilts of Gee's Bend, a tiny African-American Alabama hamlet southwest of Selma, to be "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has ever produced." That is a truth. They are miraculous.

Perhaps that miracle comes out of their genuine freedom and abandon, with both terms in possession of a full measure of past and present meaning to the population of Gee's Bend. Viewers can only now grasp and value these works because, thanks to modern art, we have learned how to read these quilts' visual rule-breaking. Simultaneously, we've become adequately socially conscious of the history of slavery and civil rights. That's the miracle of the quilts--to view such raw, immaculate, highly unconventional inventions and be cognizant of their transcendence both artistically and socially. These designs sprang out of what we naively describe as a vacuum--a place where every amenity, egress, and ingress has been purposefully removed, controlled, or denied. Because that is how the quilts' grand story began.

Gee's Bend originated as Joseph Gee's plantation, which he established in 1816 on a thumb of land surrounded on three sides by the winding Alabama River. Upon Gee's death several years later, a distant relative, Mark Pettway, assumed the property's debts and marched his own slaves over 700 miles on foot from North Carolina to Alabama and across a narrow causeway to their new home. These cut-off slaves would give birth to the traditions and artists whose quilts astound today.

From their plantation community, the principal access for 150 years to the outside world would be a cable ferry. In the mid-1930s, the Gee's Bend families--many still named Pettway--were working the land as tenant cotton farmers and maintaining a quilting tradition when they were discovered and documented by New Deal photographer Arthur Rothstein. Rothstein's genteel images gave exposure to the quilters' exceptional seamstress skills. This exposure secured them a number of "Roosevelt" houses and a farmers' cooperative that provided them independence. During a 10-year period, the community thrived as a Farm Security Administration model and the Freedom Quilting Bee was formed. However, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited in 1965 to encourage their participation at the Selma voting booths, the ferry was removed in the night, and with few cars to travel the causeway and back roads into town, they were again forced into isolation.

While America was learning to apply words like colorfield, abstraction, minimalism, op art, hard-edge, and neo-geo to various art movements, the women of Gee's Bend were piecing strips from sun-faded dungarees, Sears corduroy pillow covers, muslin feed sacks, and old work dresses and coats into amazing geometric configurations, unlike anything that previously existed in two dimensions in their experience or ours.

The work of 39 women makes up in this exhibition. Their inspiration was and is the authentic materials and labors that supported past and present generations--the plowed and planted fields, their homes, shelters constructed of logs, bricks, boards and plastered papers, the fretwork of porch railings and window mullions, and bright striped shutters (and somewhat later the modernist Southern Poverty Law Center building in Montgomery, Ala.). This is the architecture that the Walters Art Museum's Gee's Bend exhibition, which originated at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, acknowledges as source.

Gee's Bend quilters variously refer to the underlying structure of their patterns as "Housetop," "Bricklayer," "Lazy Gal," "Blocks and Strips," and "Log Cabin." But it takes a trained eye to sort out where the conventions of each pattern begins and ends as the imagination of the quilter deconstructs or overrides it. The central covenant of these anarchical quilters has always been that no two quilts should ever be the same. The quilts are thus inspired by this gentle prod of creative pressure. They are monumental and individualistic far beyond anyone's expectations. They are sculptural, rippling from the conflicts of different fabrics or from the left- or right-handedness of their creator's stitching. And they are haunted by their inherent humanity--they kept warm on icy nights and comforted and concealed through love, birth, death, and deepest grief. The quilts tell you this.

The Museum of Fine Arts' premiere 2002 exhibition of these now world-famous quilts let us in on the secret, thanks in great part to the documentary and curatorial work done by Paul and William Arnett and the Tinwood Alliance, an Atlanta nonprofit organization dedicated to illuminating unknown and underrepresented American art and culture.

Following the show's seminal stint at the Whitney, the collection toured in '04 as nearby as Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Walters' current compilation of designs, a different show altogether, is accompanied by a comprehensive catalog, also named The Architecture of the Quilt, which beautifully elaborates on the culture of the work.

The Walters presentation also includes a collaboration with high-school students who visited Gee's Bend artists and wrote wall-text commentary on their experience, and a gallery of documentary ink-jet prints by Baltimore photographer Linda Day Clark. Clark visited the quilt artists several times and captures their current life on film, continuing the sensitive work begun by Rothstein and the Arnetts. Her images are vivid, intimate glances into the generous faces of the women, their menfolk and pastors, and their peaceful, gracious homes.

 

Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper