Thursday, January 17, 2008
From a bend in the Alabama River, a small, rural community is taking the art world by storm with a unique style of abstract quilts. The Gee’ Bend quilters have refined a distinctive, sophisticated quilting style that is gaining critical acclaim worldwide.
The quilts reflect the geometric sensibility of modern art and the works have been compared to those of important artists like Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. The New York Times called the quilts "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." The sensational compositions, colors and innovative designs of the quilts of Gee’s Bend have an aesthetic impact that transcends the medium. Unlike the square patterns of other American quilt styles, these works reflect inventive, personal perspectives inspired by surroundings, history and the fabric’s origins.
Quilting in Gee’s Bend is an art that spans at least four generations. The community began in the 1800s as a cotton plantation owned by Joseph Gee and Mark Pettway. After the Civil War, freed slaves continued to live in the area, working as tenant farmers and then buying pieces of the land in the 1940s. Quilting here, as in most of America, was as much a necessity as an art. The community was isolated by its river border which made self-sufficiency essential. Well into the second half of the 20th century, the community lived in unheated homes without running water or electricity. The women of Gee’s Bend pieced strips of available material together to keep their families warm and some made hundreds of quilts throughout their lifetime.
Their work is infused with imaginative design. Such creation is often presumed a luxury of leisure of patron sponsored artists or sufferers of self-inflicted torment. But the women of Gee’s Bend earned everything the hard way. Gee's Bend men and women survived slavery, grew and picked crops, lived without modern amenities, survived the Depression, and lived through the raucous environment of the South during the Civil Rights movement. In the 1960s, the lifeline ferry across to Gee’s Bend was shut down and people in Alabama who registered to vote in support of or march with Civil Rights protesters were systematically persecuted through loss of their jobs or repossession of their homes.
Despite the toll of history, the quilters of Gee’s Bend continued producing their quilts gathering inspiration from continuing struggle as well as from the love and peace they distilled in their own lives. Quilts were made from faded work clothes, textile scraps and any other usable fabric. Some were inspired by loved ones who had passed, others by backyard scenes and some by the freedom marches that brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to Gee’s Bend in 1965.
In 1998, social historian and art curator William Arnett stumbled across a photo of a “work-clothes” quilt by Annie Mae Young. The stunning original design prompted him to find the quilt and its creator. He succeeded and after buying several quilts from Young, he became known as the crazy man in town “paying good money for raggedy old quilts.” Arnett promptly began to promote the work of the Gee’s Bend quilters. The impressive artistry and originality led the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to organize an exhibit titled The Quilts of Gee’s Bend in 2002.
The exhibit of 60 Gee’s Bend quilts then traveled nationwide to museums in twelve cities including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The impressive list of institutions that displayed the Gee’s Bend quilts rank among the most sought after spaces by artists.
In 2003, after the success of the first exhibit, women of Gee’s Bend formed the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective with help from Arnett and a non-profit he formed called the Tinwood Alliance. The Collective was founded to help market the magnificent quilts. Some quilts sold through the collective have fetched more than $20,000. The funds are distributed between the quilt’s creator, the collective and its other members.
A second exhibition is currently making waves across the United States. Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and opened in June. The exhibit features work spanning fifty years of Gee’s Bend quilters and includes work from the newest generation of quilters, signifying the continuation of this long tradition. Many of the quilters of Gee’ Bend are elderly but have children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren who have taken to learning the art of quilt making.
The current exhibit will grace the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Orlando Museum of Art, The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY, the Denver Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, just to name a few, and will run through October 2008. Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt is changing the way we think about modern art and recognizing the amazing collective talent from a small, rural community in Alabama.
The Collective has their own website which provides further details on where you can see their art or purchase your own piece. There are also two books about the women and the art: The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, and Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts (available through Tinwood Media, Tinwood Alliance or the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).