Gee’s Bend quilts: vibrant, bed-sized works of abstract art

Gee’s Bend, Ala., is one of the most isolated areas in America. This small bump of land, five miles long and eight miles wide, is surrounded by the Alabama River on three sides. Yet there has been an amazing discovery of art treasure there: the quilts of Gee’s Bend.

Like most discoveries, the quilts and its creators didn’t cease to exist in history, they were just out of sight for a while. Named after Joseph Gee in 1816, the land had the requisite cotton plantation and slaves. The Civil War turned the slaves into tenant farmers. By the 1930s, the federal government labeled it one of the poorest places in America, enabling it to receive help from New Deal programs. The Rev. Renwick Kennedy, sent there in 1934, wrote, “Gee’s Bend is an Alabama Africa. There is no more concentrated and racially exclusive Negro population in any rural community in the South than in Gee’s Bend.” Quilts were made for family and friends from whatever fabric was at hand, in their own imaginative African-based designs.

They were off the radar again until the 1960s, when the quilting skills of the local women were first spotlighted. Gee’s Bend housed the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing and job cooperative, and received a Sears-Roebuck contract that lasted through the mid-1980s.

Historians and collectors rediscovered the quilts again in the 1990s. A permanent round of attention began in 2002 with the “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. (Louisvillians got the chance to view 12 of the quilts in the fall of 2004 at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft.) The art world was underwhelmed. Brooks Barnes of the Wall Street Journal called them “beaux-art blankies” and “… something from Aunt Edna’s boudoir.”

Luckily, a few art critics took a second, even a third look, and realized there was something different about these quilts. “The 70 quilts in the show are no less than the equals — in unconventional color, bold and surprising composition, and subtle visual invention — of just about any abstract painting made by any trained artist living in one of the world’s great cities,” wrote Peter Plagens in Newsweek. “It’s as if something in the local water has produced a whole villageful of Paul Klees who create their vibrant work in a bed-size scale instead of in tiny watercolors.” The astonishment was loud: How could untrained African-American women from such an isolated area produce such graphic, abstract wonders?

“Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt,” an exhibit now up at the Speed Art Museum, offers a deeper explanation. Gee’s Bend, with its 150 or so quiltmakers, is part of an ongoing research and study project. With the small town back in the limelight, many of the fiber artists there have become more inspired, with a third of the quilts in this current show made since the original 2002 exhibition.

While there are a few “stars” among the quilters, such as Loretta P. Bennett and Martha Jane Pettway, it is the quilts that shine. The typical Gee’s Bend quilt is colorful and not made from published quilt patterns but designed by the local inhabitants. The textile artists refer to the quilts as being “built,” similar to a house, and find inspiration from their constructed and natural environments. “Housetop” is one of their most important patterns.

People who don’t “get” abstract and nonrepresentational art should still enjoy this collection of about 50 quilts. While these quilters didn’t set out to make contemporary art, we see them now as folk artists with a heightened sense of community-inspired design. Even the U.S. Postal Service appreciates them — there are now stamps featuring the Gee’s Bend quilts.

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‘Gee’s Bend: The Architecture
of the Quilt’
Through March 23
Speed Art Museum
2035 S. Third St.