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Mar/Apr 2003


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 visitor.

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, ca. 1935;
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 1935.

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

All works, collection of Tinwood Alliance. Photos: Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studio. Courtesy of Tinwood Books.

Jessie T. Pettway, Bars and string-pieced columns, 1950s;
cotton; 95 by 76 inches.


Essie Bendolph Pettway, Multiple columns of rectangular
blocks and bars, 1980; corduroy; 93 by 75 inches.


Florine Smith, Four-block strips, ca. 1975; corduroy; 68 by 81 inches.

This review first appeared in:

Mar/Apr 2003

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