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The Quilts of Gee's Bend, a treasure trove of African-American art

Imagine an artists' colony. A locale like Gee's Bend, Alabama, a rural peninsula of swampy land, surrounded on three sides by the winding Alabama River, is not exactly what comes to mind.

Nonetheless, Gee's Bend is one of the most fertile American artists' colonies of the 20th century, producing a mother lode of quilters who've created bold, original and stunningly beautiful work.

Currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and celebrated in the season's most gorgeous art book, The Quilts of Gee's Bend, these quilts are garnering rave reviews and are being snatched up by art museums for their permanent collections.

New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman recently rhapsodized over the Whitney show, calling it "the most ebullient exhibition of the New York art season," heralding the quilts as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced," and comparing the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend to Matisse and Klee in their sense of color and line.

Credit for the exhibit, the book and an expanded companion volume, Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts (423 pages with more than 500 illustrations), goes largely to art collector William Arnett who, for the past 20 years, has studied and collected African-American vernacular art.

Arnett and actress Jane Fonda were co-founders of the Tinwood Alliance of Atlanta, a nonprofit foundation supporting and showcasing unique and original African-American art forms. Out of the Alliance grew a publishing arm, Tinwood Books, and an intense exploration by Arnett and his extended family of the quilts and quilters of Gee's Bend. Partnering with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Arnett and other contemporary art scholars and curators created the Gee's Bend exhibit and the books.

The result is a scholarly, comprehensive celebration of the place, the people and their art that will certainly hold a lasting place in the annals of art history.

Rarely has a bend in the river created a more geographically isolated and culturally unique community than at Gee's Bend, Alabama. The only road leading into the community wasn't paved until 1967. A ferry that connected the settlement, once a large, slave-owning cotton plantation, with the town of Camden was closed down in the early 1960s when Gee's Bend residents, most of them formerly tenant farmers, became involved in the civil rights movement and began registering to vote.

The heyday of quilting at Gee's Bend is loosely dated 1920 to 1970. The community's population topped out at around 1,500, but now stands at around 750. As sons and daughters have left the Bend for bigger cities and better work opportunities, the tradition of quilting has been left to a handful of older women and may soon fade out altogether.

That, and the extraordinary vivacity of the work, now preserved and documented, is what makes Arnett's project so exciting and culturally significant. It's possible that national attention might kindle a revival of quilting in the area, but the richness, vitality and originality of the quilters whose work fills the pages of The Quilts of Gee's Bend will likely never be matched.

Quilts are multi-dimensional -- functional in the most earthbound way but sometimes as imaginatively rendered as an abstract painting. The quilts of Gee's Bend are best viewed as self-portraits of the sturdy women who made them from scraps of worn-out work clothes, cotton flour sacks and fabric samples. (A large number are constructed of scraps of corduroy collected by the women of the community over a 20-year period when they were contracted by Sears to make corduroy pillow covers.)

Consider the variations on a pattern called "Housetop," simple concentric squares around a central medallion. Qunnie Pettway's interpretation, rendered in corduroy is bold, almost flaming, in red and cream with bright sunspots at its edges. Arie Pettway's version of the same pattern is softer and more ethereal -- its center medallion an old faded bandana that might have been worn in the fields, surrounded by soft pieces of work clothes, the entire composition rich and dreamy, drawn in the colors of earth, water and sky. (The artists are only vaguely related; many of the families in Gee's Bend are named Pettway after their forebearers, slaves on the Pettway plantation.)

These quilts must be seen to be appreciated. They live and breathe in the brightening of an eye. And since few of us will get to see them at the Whitney, we owe a debt of gratitude to the makers of the book who wisely filled it with large-scale, full-color photographs of the quilts.

Leafing through The Quilts of Gee's Bend is almost as exciting as a stroll through a museum gallery and fortunate readers get to view this remarkable treasure trove of African-American art again and again. The Quilts of Gee's Bend is nothing less than an exaltation, an anthem to beauty, a celebration of life. And it is an open invitation to remember the true meaning of American creativity and ingenuity -- a theme in dire need of honest revitalization.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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