The Quilts of Gee's Bend
The Quilts of Gee's Bend are quilts created by a group of women and their ancestors who live or have lived in the isolated African-American hamlet of Gee's Bend, Alabama along the Alabama River. The Quilts of Gee's Bend are considered to be unique, and one of the most important African-American visual and cultural contributions to the history of art within the United States. Arlonzia Pettway, Annie Mae Young and Mary Lee Bendolph are among some of the most notable quilters from Gee’s Bend. Many of the residents in the community can trace their ancestry back to slaves from the Pettway Plantation. Arlonzia Pettway can recall her grandmother’s stories of her ancestors, specifically of Dinah Miller, who was brought to the United States by slave ship in 1859.
Just southwest of Selma, in the Black Belt of Alabama, Gee's Bend (officially called Boykin) is an isolated, rural community of about seven hundred inhabitants. The area is named after Joseph Gee, a landowner who came from North Carolina and established a cotton plantation in 1816 with his seventeen slaves. In 1845 the plantation was sold to Mark H. Pettway. This name still remains predominant in the county as many members of the community still carry the name. After emancipation many freed slaves and family members stayed on the plantation as sharecroppers. In the 1930s, Gee's Bend saw a significant shift in their community, as a merchant who had given credit to the families of the Bend died, and the family of this merchant collected on debts owed to him in a brutal way. These indebted families watched as all their food, animals, tools and seed were taken away, and the community was saved by the distribution of Red Cross rations. Much of the land of this area was sold to the Federal Government and the Farm Security Administration, and those organizations set up Gee's Bend Farms, Inc.-a pilot project that was a cooperative based program intended to help sustain the inhabitants of the area. The government sold tracts of land to the families of the bend, thus giving the Native and African American population control over the land, which at the time was still rare. The community of Gee's Bend was also the subject of several Farm Security Administration photographers, like Dorothea Lange. During the latter half of The Great Depression the inhabitants of the area faced challenges as farming practices became increasingly mechanized, and consequently, a large portion of the community left.
However, many inhabitants of the community stayed. In 1949, a U.S Post Office was established. In 1962, ferry service, one of the only accesses into Gee’s Bend, was eliminated, contributing to the community’s isolation. This elimination hindered residents’ ability to register to vote. Ferry service was not restored until 2006.
From the 1960s onward, the community of Gee's Bend, as well as the Freedom Quilting Bee in nearby Alberta, gained attention for the production of their quilts. Folk art collector, historian, curator William Arnett brought further attention to this artistic production with his Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia, as he helped organize many exhibitions which featured their work.
In 1965 Martin Luther King Jr. visited the area.
The quilting tradition in Gee's Bend goes back beyond the 19th century perhaps influenced in part by patterned Native American and African textiles. African-American women pieced together strips of cloth to make bedcovers. Throughout the post-bellum years and into the 20th century, Gee's Bend women made quilts to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated shacks that lacked running water, telephones and electricity. Along the way they developed a distinctive style, noted for its lively improvisations and geometric simplicity. Many of the quilts are a departure from classical quilt making, bringing to mind a minimalist quality. This is could have also been influenced by the isolation of their location, which caused them to use whatever materials were on hand, often recycling from old clothing and textiles.
The quilts have been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. The reception of the work has been mostly positive, as Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston wrote, "The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making". The Whitney venue, in particular, brought a great deal of art-world attention to the work, starting with Michael Kimmelman's review in The New York Times which called the quilts 'some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced' and went on to describe them as a version of Matisse and Klee arising in the rural South. Comparable effect can be seen in the quilts of isolated individuals such as Rosie Lee Tompkins, but the Gee's Bend quilters had the advantage of numbers and backstory.
Tyree McCloud is an artist who was born and raised in Gee’s Bend. He spent his childhood learning the traditions of his ancestors alongside his grandmother. He is an accomplished stain-glass artist; his artwork can be seen throughout the tourist centers in the community. Another notable work from McCloud is the Gee’s Bend Quilting Trail – 17-miles of paintings, which interpret the quilts made in the community. These paintings can be seen throughout the community. The Gee’s Bend Quilting Trail was included on a series of postage stamps.
In 2003, more than 50 quilt makers founded the Gee's Bend Collective, which is owned and operated by the women of Gee’s Bend. Every quilt sold by the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective is unique and individually produced. At the retreats, which began in 2015, China Pettway and Mary Ann Pettway share their unique quilting styles as participants explore the work of their hands and the spirituality of quilting. Singing and storytelling are also included in the activities. In recent years, members of the Collective have traveled nationwide to talk about Gee’s Bend’s history and their art. Many of the ladies have become well known for their wit, engaging personality and, in some cases, singing abilities.
Books and other media
- Bridget R. Cooks, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum University of Massachusetts Press, 2011
- The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, Tinwood Media
- Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts, Tinwood Media
- Documentary video on the Gee’s Bend quilters and a double-CD of Gee’s Bend Gospel Music from 1941 and 2002.
- Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, Tinwood Books
- Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee's Bend Quilts, and Beyond, Tinwood Books
- Creation Story: Gee's Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial, Frist Center for the Visual Arts
- "The Quilts of Gee's Bend in Context," Auburn University, Women's Studies.
- Wallach, Amei. "Fabric of Their Lives". Smithsonian Magazine.
- Choosing craft : the artist's viewpoint. Halper, Vicki., Douglas, Diane, 1951-. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2009. ISBN 0807831190. OCLC 646811437.
- Stephens, Kyes. ""The History of Gee's Bend Alabama"". Retrieved 8 March 2015.
- "The Future of Gee's Bend - Deep South Magazine". Deep South Magazine. 2012-04-17. Retrieved 2017-12-05.
- "'The Quilts of Gee's Bend'". NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-12-05.
- "The Quilts of Gee's Bend"
- Kimmelman, Michael (29 November 2002). "ART REVIEW: Jazzy Geometry, Cool Quilters". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 November 2017.
- 1951-, McDonald, Robin, (2015). Visions of the Black Belt : a cultural survey of the heart of Alabama. Burnes, Valerie Pope, 1977-. Tuscaloosa, AL: University Alabama Press. ISBN 0817318798. OCLC 905636961.
- The quilts of Gee's Bend. Beardsley, John., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (1st ed ed.). Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 2002. ISBN 0965376648. OCLC 51172928.