Connoisseurs have long known that art is often born of adversity, and many biographies have been written on the rough lives of famous painters. But their hardships seem tame compared to the challenges faced by the women quilt makers of the rural agricultural community of Gee’s Bend, Ala., during the Twentieth Century.
Yet the 65 quilts on display in the traveling exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” currently at the Cleveland Museum of Art through September 12, are examples of a pure aesthetic form, practiced by women who worked hard as field hands or domestic workers in their nonquilting hours. Cleveland is the sixth stop on a three-year tour, which began at the organizing institution, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and has been extended to 11 museums due to fervent popular interest in the exhibition.
When the exhibition opened at the Whitney in New York City in 2002, art critic Michael Kimmelman, writing in The New York Times, called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” The Whitney’s interest in the quilts – often made from utilitarian fabrics, such as sheets or work clothes – stemmed from their very painterly use of color and design.
Not really a town in a formal sense, Gee’s Bend is a community in Wilcox County, Ala., whose geographical limits are defined by an almost circular bend in the Alabama River, which created an isolated peninsula of land reached only by an unpaved road or flat-bottomed ferry. Most of the inhabitants are descendants of slaves who once lived on the Gee and Pettway plantations; Pettway remains a common surname among them. Freed after the Civil War, they became tenant farmers in the area, working their own plots and hiring out for what jobs were offered by larger landowners.
Gee’s Bend was first “discovered” in a national sense during the Depression, and some of the earliest quilts illustrated in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog are from the 1930s. The terrible winter of 1932-33 was a low point for the community, after livestock, tools and even food were seized to pay debts. The federal government intervened in 1934, when the Roosevelt administration tried to alleviate the devastating poverty produced by punitive sharecropping arrangements.
An unexpected benefit of the government’s interest was the historic documentation of the community by photographers Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Wolcott, who were sent out by Roy Stryker, head of the photography division of the Resettlement Administration. All sorts of daily activities were captured – from farming to ferrying on the river – but most interesting to collectors are the images reflecting creative activities, including wall-covering “collages” of newspaper and magazine photos, vine decoration on straight back chairs and the making of quilts. Thirty-four of these archival photographs are on display in Cleveland in a concurrent exhibition called “Memory Quilt.”
Particularly valuable for quilting history are several Rothstein photographs of Lucy Mooney (1880-1969) reproduced in the catalog. In one, she stitches a quilt on a treadle sewing machine; in another, she and her granddaughters sit on a quilt-covered bed. While the quilts in these pictures seem to be conventional American patterns, an earlier photo used for the book’s endpapers shows an unidentified Wilcox County woman hanging up quilts on an outdoors clothesline, which includes several bold improvisations in the characteristic local style.
The quilts in the exhibition are owned by the Tinwood Alliance, a foundation organized by collector William Arnett and his sons in Atlanta. Collectors had been buying Gee’s Bend quilts since the 1960s, but the Arnetts went in during the 1990s almost as archaeologists, purchasing not only whole quilts but even fragments that illustrated particular points. Son Matt Arnett says, “Now we’re glad we did because there are university professors who want to look at the scraps.”
On the subject of the senior Arnett, Matt continues, “He was always interested in the things that were on the outskirts of what people collected, things that hadn’t been completely understood or appreciated. He thinks of himself as more of a preserver than a collector.” Through his company, Tinwood Media, Bill Arnett’s greatest act of preservation has been to publish the quilts in a scholarly format with the stories of the women who made them and a series of essays on style and workmanship.
These histories – many in the women’s own words – are available to researchers in the catalog The Quilts of Gee’s Bend ($45) and in the more comprehensive publication Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts ($75). In the catalog chapter “On the Map” by Bill and his son Paul, they write: “Gee’s Bend is remarkable, probably unparalleled, for the sheer number of talented quilt makers who have flourished there. In a place where no more than a few hundred women lived at any one time, more than 150 documented quilt makers have made exceptional quilts during the Twentieth Century … We know from family histories that quilt makers born around the turn of the century and earlier learned from their mothers and grandmothers, some of whom were certainly born before the Civil War.”
Interesting facts emerge from the histories. Like all artists forced to work at other jobs to survive, the women continued their creative process, whatever they were doing. Lucy T. Pettway, who made the red and white “Snowball” quilt, said in an interview: “I always had taken me some quilt pieces in the fields when I was working there, and when I knock off work at 12 to eat, I make me a block or so till I go back to the fields. When the field days ended, I went to making quilts most all the time when I wasn’t sewing and making clothes for my children to wear.” Pettway had begun quilting as a child, working alongside her mother.
Cleveland Curator Mackie says, “These women are artists – they weren’t making the quilts for that reason – but they are constantly thinking about pattern. I watched one of them at show’s opening, and she had pencil and paper in her hand, and she was folding it like origami, thinking about her next quilt. They are thinking about the creative process during most of their waking hours, even while doing the chores of daily life. It’s part of what’s going on in their head. Their individual approaches are as varied as painters thinking about what they will put on canvas. The quilts they have created have a utilitarian function, but it’s a by-product that so many of them are art.”
Another point that emerges from the quilt makers’ biographies is their interest in pattern improvisation. For this reason, the design of African American quilts has often been compared to jazz music. Many quilt makers need a pattern, just as many pianists need sheet music: the ability to improvise on a theme is a remarkable gift that cannot be taught. Lifetime quilt maker Nettie Young, who made “Stacked Bricks” in her youth and the breathtaking “Milky Way” as a mature quilt maker, found that conventional strictures just got in the way: “I started using patterns, but I shouldn’t have did it. It broke the ideas I had in my head. I should have stayed with my own ideas.”
By the time of Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, the name “Gee’s Bend” had disappeared from the map – Boykin is the nearest real town – and some of the best farmland had been flooded after the construction of a dam. Martin Luther King preached in the community on his way to Selma in 1965, but even after the emergence of a New South in the later Twentieth Century, Gee’s Bend has remained a poor area with few jobs.
Young people drift away to work in large cities. Now wealthy city people have begun to build vacation houses on the river. Thus, the encouragement of quilting as a profession, stemming from the success of the traveling exhibition, has been a benefit to the remaining original inhabitants.
Many more people will have the opportunity to view this collection, as the exhibition’s tour continues. After closing in Cleveland, “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” travels to The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, October 15-January 2; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, February 13-May 8, 2005; Boston Museum of Fine Arts, June 1-August 21, 2005; Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University, September 11-December 4, 2005; and High Museum of Art, Atlanta, February 18-May 14, 2006.
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