The Quilts of Gee's Bend
A stunningly lovely and large exhibition, "The
Quilts of Gee's Bend," is on view at the Whitney Museum of
American Art, New York City, through March 2. Occupying an
entire floor of the museum, installed with a generous feeling
of space and categories of history and stylistic directions,
this visual feast of some 70 quilts created in the tiny rural
community of Gee's Bend, Alabama, seems to actually greet
The quilts displayed, dating from about 1930 to
2000, were created by 41 women of African-American descent
and sustain a long and historic tradition dating back to at
least African origins, the American pre-Civil War slavery
era, and then up through the turbulent civil rights movements
of the 1960s into the present time. A pivotal event that helped
call attention to the Gee's Bend quilts was the cooperative
Freedom Quilting Bee, set up in 1966 by 60 quiltmakers meeting
in a local church.
|Annie Mae Young, Work-clothes quilt
with center medallion of strips, 1976; denim, corduroy,
synthetic blend; 108 by 76.5 inches.
Annie E. Pettway, Flying Geese variation,
cotton, wool; 86 by 71 inches.
Bold, in terms of contrasts of color, shape, and
pattern, all of the quilts display equal amounts of creative
individuality. At the same time, the quilters are always pragmatic
and utilitarian in their approach to their art and craft.
The quilts were meant to be used and be kept warm by, as well
as loved visually. Any piece of fabric, whatever the type
or source, might be used if it seemed "right." The notion
of "right" always combined personal, family, and highly artistic
traditions of improvisation and craft. The family names Pettway,
Young, and Bendolph, among many others, are recurrent. Two
works that exemplify appearance, tradition, and change at
Gee's Bend are those of Annie Mae Young (b.1928), Work-clothes
quilt with center medallion of strips (1976), and Annie
Pettway (1904-1971), Flying Geese variation, circa
With this exhibition, much has been made textually,
once again, of both the need to blur distinctions between
art and craft and the need to emphasize art and craft differences.
The Gee's Bend quilters, however, have created objects and
images that make it possible to look at what they have done
either way, in terms of form and function (usually as long
as it functioned), almost simultaneously. To quote quilter
Mary L. Bennett (b.1942): "Didn't nobody teach me to make
quilts. I just learned it by myself, about 12 or 13. I was
seeing my grandmama piecing it up, and then I start. I just
taken me some pieces and put it together, piece them up till
they look like I want them to look. That's all."
The Tinwood Alliance, a foundation in Atlanta,
Georgia, has been the principal collector of the Gee's Bend
quilts for years. The present exhibition was two years in
the making prior to its presentation in larger format at the
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, this past fall. A superb catalogue
accompanies this exhibition.
- Willo Doe
Jessie T. Pettway, Bars and string-pieced
cotton; 95 by 76 inches.
Essie Bendolph Pettway, Multiple columns of
blocks and bars, 1980; corduroy; 93 by 75 inches.
Florine Smith, Four-block strips, ca. 1975;
corduroy; 68 by 81 inches.