"The Quilts of Gee's Bend" became the little exhibition that could. Organized in 2002 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the show of 70 quilts made its second and last scheduled stop at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, where a Times critic called the comfy creations "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." Ten other cities signed on, and the quilters soon achieved the art-star trifecta. They got the critical praise -- loads of it, actually. They got the mass marketing: scarves, ties, rugs and licensed knockoffs -- call now! And they even got the controversy, but we'll get to that in a moment.
The MFAH has rolled out a second exhibition, "Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt," which features 70 more works, about a third of which were created after the first show. And the results are equally staggering, each piece a testament to the utterly unique creative spirit that imbues the isolated Alabama community of Gee's Bend, an agricultural peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River.
"People are so wasteful now," says quilter Mary Lee Bendolph on a placard near one of her works. "It hurts me to see people waste up things. Everything you throw away, it can be used and make something beautiful out of it."
Hence the work-clothes quilt, one of the most common creations to come out of Gee's Bend, especially in the earlier works. After denim overalls and khaki britches were worn beyond use, the scraps were not discarded; they were taken apart and used to keep one's family warm.
A highly faded offering from Amelia Bennett anchors the section devoted to these works. Made in 1929, it's full of muted blues and dark patches that outline where pockets once were, providing curved spots of contrast in an otherwise rectilinear formation. Closer inspection reveals lines of thread bobbing across the quilt's surface, connecting the front to the back and presenting the viewer with a secondary pattern.
These thread lines are more prominent in Annie Mae Young's 1970 creation. The arrangement of the denim, corduroy and khaki pieces is not unlike an agricultural expanse seen from above, and the thread lines are like streams of wind swirling through the crops, connecting them in unexpected yet entirely natural ways.
Bendolph's 2002 quilt is the youngest in the work-clothes series, and it shows signs of self-awareness that are to be expected after a major museum has gathered up your community's work and invited others to stare. Bendolph's quilt is a housetop pattern, the favored composition of Gee's Bend and a variant of what traditional quilters call the log cabin pattern. The quilt is bordered in bright red and has a section crafted from what appears to be a fancy pair of Western jeans. Rather than ripping the seams and breaking down the jeans into component parts, Bendolph has left the intricate stitching intact and used it as a flourish. Another section on the quilt is composed of blue and white bits that have been cut to re-create the markings left by pockets on some of the other quilts on display. Call it a meta quilt, a self-conscious wink at previous patterns.
Another section of the show is devoted to avocado-green, the quintessential color of the '70s. Sears Roebuck and Company contracted with the Freedom Quilting Bee, a Gee's Bend cooperative, to produce more than 100,000 pillow covers during that decade. The women kept all the scraps, and avocado-green, one of the five colors favored by Sears, entered the quilters' palette, showing up in somewhere around 100 quilts.
Mary L. Bennett's offering (no date given) is the most straightforward: a single-block housetop pattern consisting of concentric rectangles of green and brown corduroy. Her cousin, Linda Diane Bennett, used the same material to make an eight-block housetop variation (1970s), with two rows of four. And then other quilts on display add splashes of color: a little red here, yellow there, orange here, blue there.
The series seems to culminate in Ruth Kennedy's Geometry, a 2003 corduroy work in a strips-and-bars pattern. It's a thoughtful composition: Little rows and boxes of avocado-green are punctuated with plots of burgundy, red, yellow and blue. The front-to-back stitches on this piece are done in the stitch-in-a-ditch technique; the threads run along the seams of the fabric, disappearing from view. This removes the wavy effect present in other works, although we're talking about a quilt hanging on the wall here, so there's always going to be a little billowing.
It's easy to think of jazz parallels when looking at the quilts, and this is something critics did when reviewing the first exhibition. These women have learned the rules but they've chosen to break them, riffing off each other's styles in a comfy call and response. (During one visit to the show, I overheard a visitor complaining to her companion that the quilters seemed to be ignoring all the basic rules of stitching.)
What critics haven't been able to agree on is how to view the works in a politically correct, yet non-condescending tone. In Artforum, Thelma Golden, chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, wrote that she loved the quilts but hated the show: "I just hated the exhibition, which, with its shockingly politically correct tone, under the transparent cover of high/low intervention and demolished media categories, was the most culturally repugnant, retrograde movement I have experienced, perhaps in my entire professional life. It reminded me of reading Huck Finn in seventh grade at my all-white private school. I didn't hate Huck Finn, I just hated having to talk about it with everyone else as they had their racial revelatory moment."
The women of Gee's Bend responded in a letter to the magazine, saying the exhibition had changed their lives. "It has brought hope and renewal to dozens of African-American women artists here. We have been treated with dignity and respect for the first time in our lives...About the time Thelma Golden was born, women from Gee's Bend -- quilters -- were marching in places like Selma and Camden to demand basic human rights. When the white people in our country wanted to make us feel uncomfortable about that, they put us in jail, bull-dozed our homes or evicted us...We wish [Golden] had bothered to become informed before stooping to cry her tears for us. She might have learned we don't require any pity."
I'm not about to enter that fray, but I will note that the MFAH seems to have offered up its own response to Golden in the current exhibition, by means of an example: a 2003 housetop variation by Loretta Pettway.
Although several of her works were featured in the first show, Pettway quit quilting 20 years ago because of bad health and depression. She didn't attend the first ten museum openings, but with the help of her friends, she started sewing again, and the quilt on display is one of the first ones she made after her recovery. Complete with rainbow patterns and red polka dots, it's a bright, lopsided beauty, an expression of newfound freedom.
Of pure joy.
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