Friday, December 12, 2008

Gee's Bend

Last week I went up to Philadelphia for the grandmammy of all quilt exhibits. I had heard of these quilts and even had the postage stamps (I loved the bright colors and of course the quilt theme), and I knew something about the general "look" of a Gee's Bend quilt, but I was exposed to a whole new community.Gee's Bend is a small community nestled in the bend of the Alabama River. Founded in the antebellum era, the land was the site of cotton plantations. After the Civil War, the freed slaves became tenant farmers, creating an all-black community nearly isolated from the rest of Alabama.The town's women quilted to keep their families warm. They developed a distinctive, bold style of quilting based on traditional American and African American quilts, with a geometric simplicity similar to Amish quilts and modern art. They often sold quilts to contribute to the family income, some of them even doing piecework for Sears Roebuck in the 1970s.In 2002, the Gee's Bend quilts were "discovered," and the Museum of Art in Houston produced an exhibition. Since then, the popularity of the quilts has increased immensely and has provided a renown and income to this low-class community, allowing them to travel on their exhibition circuits and build additions to their small homes to allow for more quilting space. Books, photographs, tours, and yes, even postage stamps, have commemorated the creations of these hard-working women.
A few of my favorite parts of these quilts:
  • These women used what they had. Most quilts were made from old clothes--I saw worn out legs from jeans and football jerseys. One woman even made a quilt from one of those pre-printed fabric pieces to make stuffed turkeys and teddy bears. One quilt included pieces of an old shirt its maker found stuck in the mud. She scrubbed and bleached the fabric and found it perfect for her quilt. A whole room contained quilts made from the courduroy scraps of pillows made for Sears in the 1970s. The rich colors--avacado, gold, brown, royal blue--were striking and the textures were rich. I loved the faded resourcefulness--of course--the means of creating beauty from the scraps of what they had.
  • They created their own designs from what they saw. One room had quilts based on the same design--a house block--as if you were looking down at a neighborhood of houses on a street. One even looked like it had the winding bend of red Alabame river clay. One looked exactly like what it must have looked like to lay down on the floor of an old barn and look up through the holes in the roof to the sky. The stripes and lines were exactly reminiscent of their old barns and houses, and the circles and shapes looked just like the patterns of the leaves and flowers outside their windows. They found beauty in the natural patterns around them--even if it just looked like a ramshackle pile of old boards and junk. Incredible. Beautiful.
  • These women were NOT symmetrical. They did not fit into the neat, ordered, straight lines we generally think of when we think of quilts and design. Oh--they were neat and ordered and straight, but not by a strict ruler. They wandered and used up what they had, then added other pieces to finish up the design. But they were real. And they followed the designs in their head and on their scraps of paper, not the patterns to which I find myself attached, trying desperately to make the ends fit. And every single one of these quilts was beautiful and unique.
  • There was an actual sense of community hanging on those museum walls. The labels identified who made which quilt, and you could see family names stretching around the rooms. Not only could you see names, but you could see strains of family design, of family fabric, of hands helping quilt. Photographs demonstrated how women would hang quilts out on their fences, and then wandering through the neighborhood, one could take note of another's pattern and fabric, taking notes and sharing. One quilting pattern indicated an arc--you could tell that the women sewed as far as their arms could reach until their stitches met the next woman over. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, daughters-in-law, sisters-in-law, neighbors, friends--they also often sang together as they quilted. A video highlighted their pentecostal atonal singing. As they fingered their fabrics, their notes melded together in praise and support.
  • Since their "discovery," these women have formed a quilting cooperative, allowing the women to market and sell their quilts to a larger audience than their Alabama neighborhoods. Suddenly their handwork has enabled these women to become women of property, to manage their lives and to contribute to a highly demanding art world. They are acknowledged and appreciated and valued. And they still live in their tiny ramshackle houses and try to make do, caring for their families and piecing together remnants and used clothing into their quilts.


Laurie, the girls and Scott said...

I love these quilts! When my big one wasn't just right I just told myself it was a Gee's Bend quilt and it was instantly more fab.

JJ said...

That looks like an amazing exhibit! And I love that they were not symmetrical! I wonder if there will someday be a display of Jenny Redder aprons!

Paul and Mari said...

What a wonderful exhibit. Thanks for sharing it with us and all that your learned from them.

Smarties said...

So cool, Jenny! Isn't it amazing how 'avant-garde' these quilts are? (Haven't used that term in a while!) They look so Denyse-Schmidt-modern. I think my favorite thing about quilts is when they are just scrappy -using what you have. My favorite is the avocado corduroy one. IT would be fun to do something like this.