I’ve been watching the fascinating PBS series “Why Quilts Matter,” which is currently airing as a re-run on PBS if you can catch it. It originally ran in 2011. Perhaps I’m a little late in discovering the beauty of the Gee’s Bend quilts, which are apparently very famous.
The series introduced me to the wonderful quilting and culture of dozens of African-American ladies in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. These quilts are all mid-20th century. Could you tell, from afar? The modern quilt movement of this decade is, excuse my pun, cut from the same cloth, at least aesthetically.
Bold colors. Plenty of solids. Strong geometric patterns. Asymetry. Abstraction. Heavy use, or exclusive use, of scraps. Upcycling, though they would have never called it that, or thought of it in that way. Divergence from what else was going on at the time, and the traditions of the past.In the great debate of what is or is not a “modern” quilt, if these aren’t modern, I don’t know what is.
The ladies of Gee’s Bend, a dirt-poor rural community in Alabama, have made quilts for generations. They were made from scraps taken from old clothes and whatever material they could find. They didn’t use patterns, and stitched by hand. They were made to be used, and made for themselves.
In the early 1990s, African-American art collector Bill Arnett discovered a photo of a strikingly beautiful quilt and began a journey to find its unknown maker. He found her, Annie Mae Young, in Gee’s Bend, Alabma, along with a rich cache of beautiful and different quilts. Word quickly spread among the community that he was paying serious money, hundreds and even thousands, for their quilts, and called them ART. The ladies couldn’t believe that he wanted their “imperfect” work. These were quilts upon which men changed oil. These were quilts thrown away and burned after too many uses. These were quilts used in everyday life. A quilter said, “He said he wasn’t looking for those fussy, pretty, perfect quilts. He wanted exactly the ones Pettway thought were ugly. He told her that those fast-pattern, no-pattern, old-clothes quilts were beautiful, that they were artwork (artwork!), that someday they were going to hang on a museum wall” (“Made in Gee’s Bend” by Lisa Gray, published in the Houston Chronicle.) Since Arnett’s acquisitions, the quilts were marketed as art, and hung on walls in museums across America. They were well-received by both critics and fans alike, changing the way people look at quilts.
At the time, before the now popular modern quilt movement, these ladies were truly revolutionary. This is certainly better, dare I say, than the quilts that Quilters with a capital “Q” were making of batiked cats at the same time these quilts were at their first exhibition. These Quilters were calling their quilts exclusively Art, but not the quilts of Gee’s Bend. It was these same quilters, I learned through the PBS documentary, that attacked the quilts of Gee’s Bend because of their imperfection, asymmetry, cheapness of materials used, etc. I mean, these quilts were literally dirty. I was stunned to hear their public criticism, but really, I shouldn’t be, considering the unfortunate divisions even now in 2012 of quilters who are “traditional” and “modern” who look upon each other with disdain. And these ladies don’t have race and poverty separating them.
Unfortunately, I learned online that a lawsuit later followed, with allegations that the men who made their quilts famous though their marketing and publicity has not returned some of the quilts or passed along enough of the profit from them. See NPR’s article or a 2005 Decatur Daily newspaper article detailing allegations if you’re interested and want a case of the sads.
To learn more about the phenomenal Gee’s Bend Quilters, please visit:
TINWOOD, which has a plethora of educational and biographical information on the Gee’s Bend quilts and quilters, and houses their work online
THE QUILTS OF GEE’S BEND at Auburn University
THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE - “Made in Gee’s Bend” by Lisa Gray, 2006.
All images and information were drawn from these resources.