DAVID COHEN, Editor
By Sandra Sider
In 1999, the American Craft Museum mounted Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African-American Artists, which included works by such nationally acclaimed artists as Michael Cummings, Kyra Hicks, and Carolyn Mazloomi. From visual celebrations of such heroic figures as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to "movement and rhythm that defy the notion of quilt as rectangle" (in Chris McLeod's words), that exhibition had stupendous response from reviewers as well as from the public. As a result, American quilt artists
in general and African-American artists in particular were in the spotlight. Then came the 2002 Whitney Biennial, with the quilts of African-American artist Rosie Lee Tompkins being among the brightest, most popular pieces in the exhibition.
Gee's Bend, very isolated until the mid-1960s, is situated within a large loop of the Alabama River, deep in Wilcox County, one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the United States. Nearly half of the women with quilts in the Whitney Museum exhibition have the last name "Pettway," their legacy of slavery from plantation owner Mark Pettway in the mid-nineteenth century. The community of Gee's Bend has suffered numerous indignities in the twentieth century, from a starvation campaign in the early 1930s to social, political, and economic discrimination during the struggle for voting rights in the 1960s. The spirit of community that saw Gee's Bend through such hard times comes shining through in their quilts, and it is a privilege to see them.
People who grow up in poverty learn never to waste a thing, and the impetus to use every scrap of fabric, or to share scraps with others, obviously motivated the women of Gee's Bend. Many of the Gee's Bend quilts are monumental, large enough to cover a king-sized bed, and they contain many pieces of salvaged fabric. Because the quiltmakers did not have the luxury to design a quilt from scratch, but had to use what fabric they had from worn-out clothes or left over from sewing projects, they had to improvise. Many of the resulting quilts have the offbeat rhythms of syncopated jazz or the swelling crescendo of a gospel chorus, with voice building upon voice. Alvia Wardlaw has written that for the community of Gee's Bend, quiltmaking, like music, is "a great colorful subtext providing a vibrant visual framework." These quilts were constantly present in the eyes of Gee's Bend--on beds, couches, and chairs, and from time to time hung across yards on clotheslines to air out or dry.
As Debra Singer has remarked
of the Gee's Bend quilts, "This work transcends the outdated, residual
boundaries between art and craft." The quilts seem to have sprung
from the creative impulse itself, as the quiltmakers stitched together
innovative resolutions for seemingly impossible combinations of color
and pattern. In addition, the layers of many Gee's Bend quilts are held
together by radically undisciplined hand quilting that swoops and jumps
and flies across the surface. The joyful abandon of the quilting perfectly
complements the feeling of freedom in these unique abstract compositions.
Catalogue by John
Beardsley, William Arnett, Paul Arnett, and Jane Livingston, introduction
by Alvia Wardlaw and foreword by Peter Marzio, published by Tinwood Books,
Atlanta, in association with The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 192 pp,
SANDRA SIDER, a fiber artist and Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, teaches art history at Fordham University and lives in the Bronx. Her web site is photoquilt.net.