Tag Archives: Gee’s Bend

Incomparable: The Quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend

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Annie Mae Young, Strip Medallion Quilt (1976), cotton and cotton/polyester; 8′ 8-1/2 x 77″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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This review was originally published in the June 20, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until September 23rd). My review of the exhibition will appear in the September edition of The New Criterion.

New Yorkers who missed “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend”, an exhibition seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art during the winter of 2002-3, should have their collective knuckles soundly rapped. There can’t have been an excuse good enough to merit by passing a show that documented not only the triumph of American vernacular culture, but the resilience of the human spirit.

Gee’s Bend is a rural community located in Wilcox, Alabama, an all but inaccessible patch of land created by a loop in the Alabama River. Prior to the Civil War, two families, the Gees and the Pettways, took advantage of the area’s rich soil to grow cotton, using slave labor in the harvesting of crops.

After the war, and with emancipation, the Pettway slaves remained in Gee’s Bend as tenant farmers. Though touched by world events–Gee’s Bend was a beneficiary of the New Deal and a stop on Martin Luther King’s 1965 march to Selma–the residents lived in relative isolation for five generations, developing their own patois, religion and music. It is with their quilt-making that the inhabitants of Gee’s Bend–the women, really–have made an incomparable contribution to our common culture.

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Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, Log Cabin quilt (ca. 1935), cotton and rayon, 81-1/4 x 79-1/2″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The nine quilts on display at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, some of them created within the last few years, are typical of Gee’s Bend–which is to say, not typical at all. Knowledge of established quilt traditions won’t prepare you for the work’s audacity. The Alabama artisans hew to no established pattern; idiosyncrasy is the standard. Maxwell Anderson, former director of the Whitney, lauds the Gee’s Bend quilters for their “unexpected informality in a genre associated with prim formulas.”

Loose-limbed improvisation is an integral component of the Gee’s Bend quilts, as is material necessity: poverty, in this case, is the mother of invention. The fabrics employed (corduroy, paisley, textile remnants from the 40’s onwards and, most memorably, blue jeans) are determined as much by availability as by sensibility. Do we romanticize the women of Gee’s Bend–and, by fiat, the notion of the inspired, untutored outsider–in claiming them as de facto aesthetes? Probably, but that’s not to say romance can’t be predicated on fact.

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Louise T. Pettway, Housetop and Bricklayer with Bars quilt (ca. 1955), cotton and acetate, 91-3/8 x 80-1/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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And beautiful fact it is, too. Little wonder that Ameringer Yohe, a venue dedicated largely to modernist abstraction, chose to feature the quilters of Gee’s Bend. Their expansive geometric patterning, startling and subtle colors, and sophisticated sense of design are reminiscent of the work of any number of renowned abstract painters–none of whom shall be mentioned here. The reputations of those men and women would only be diminished by the comparison.

Pettway–now there’s a name to take note of, particularly as it applies to quilters like Loretta (subtle, resilient), Katie Mae (talismanic, intense) and Allie (quirky, vulnerable). As for Bars variation (c. 1940-50), a magisterial parade of alternating blue and tan stripes: Who would have dared to predict that the back pocket of a pair of pants could achieve the density and emphasis of a slurred dab of oil paint? Amelia Bennett, that’s who; you’ll remember her as well. As for the names Ameringer and Yohe–they should be commended for a public service splendidly performed.

© 2005 Mario Naves