BY LAURA M. ADDISON
“The most miraculous works of modern art America has produced” is how Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times described the quilts by African American women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, that were exhibited in 2002 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
He continued with superlatives, stating that the Whitney show was “the most ebullient exhibition of the New York art season.” Seen in the context of one of the country’s mainstays of modern and avant-garde art, the visually arresting textiles were compared to paintings by some of the most celebrated American and European modern artists: Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, Agnes Martin, Josef Albers.
There is much more at play in this “miraculous” transformation than the quilts’ remarkable aesthetics and the compelling biographies of their makers. Through these quilts, we can come to better understand a place and its inhabitants as they lived through the legacy of slavery, racism, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, and beyond. The Museum of International Folk Art’s recently acquired quilt Blocked Out (2009), by Gee’s Bend quilter Mary Lee Bendolph, allows us to access these watershed moments in American history through the complex experience of one African American community and an enduring tradition of quilting.Nearly every account of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, begins with its isolation, which has at times been by design and at other times imposed from the outside. This seclusion is due in part to this forty-square-mile peninsula’s geography, nestled within a pronounced U-shaped bend in the Alabama River, and for many years accessible only by a single road and an unreliable ferry to the town of Camden. But as J. R. Moehringer wrote in his 1999 Los Angeles Times article “Crossing Over,” “Some of their isolation owes to geography. … Some of their isolation owes to personality. … But most of their isolation owes to white folks across the river, who have done everything possible to make Gee’s Bend lonelier than a leper colony.”
At times, isolation has come to characterize Gee’s Bend in a romanticized way, as if they were a lost society removed from “civilization” and only recently “discovered.” “Gee’s Bend represents another civilization. Gee’s Bend is an Alabama Africa,” the Reverend Renwick Kennedy wrote in a 1937 Christian Century article, referring to the fact that Gee’s Bend residents, or “Benders,” were almost exclusively African American descendants of slaves. Couched in the rhetoric of “progress” and “development,” Rev. Kennedy’s comment drew a picture of a community that was as socially anomalous as it was physically isolated. More recently, Gee’s Bend and its quilters have been portrayed as anachronisms, as evident in the proposed subtitle of a 2002 publication on Gee’s Bend quilts: “Masterpieces from a Lost Place.”
The unspoken implications of such characterizations — that is, the “miraculous” quilts from a “lost” place — are various: the recognition of American masterpieces hidden in plain sight; the accidental artistry of individuals lacking formal art schooling; and the potential for the economic transformation of a poor, rural community through the patronage of the art establishment. Gee’s Bend was not lost for those who lived there. At the various moments when Gee’s Bend was “found,” it served as an expedient example of one political agenda or another. Indeed, this community has come in and out of the public eye with some regularity.
As storied as Gee’s Bend’s history has been, there was nothing romantic about the racism and poverty Benders experienced. Gee’s Bend was established as a plantation in 1816 by Joseph Gee and worked by the labor of slaves. After Emancipation, the freed slaves stayed at Gee’s Bend as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, eventually gaining ownership of their lands through a 1930s federal pilot program. This program was prompted by national attention to the dire poverty and starvation in the community after the widow of a Camden merchant settled debts with the Benders by taking everything they owned, from tools and animals to food and furniture. The Red Cross provided emergency food and supplies, and President Roosevelt authorized low-interest loans so that residents could buy land and live in the modest “Roosevelt homes” that the government built.
Gee’s Bend became a New Deal poster child when two photographers were assigned to document conditions there, also in the 1930s. Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein came through in 1937, creating images of the conditions there as part of a larger project to expose poverty in the United States and the federal government’s programs to alleviate it. Two years later, Marion Post Wolcott returned to photograph the changes in Gee’s Bend after residents had received assistance from the federal government. These two bodies of work were intended to serve as a before-and-after testimonial to the success of FDR’s programs in dealing with poverty during the Great Depression.
Later, in 1962, the contours of the Gee’s Bend landscape were literally altered by the damming of the Alabama River just south of the community, flooding their farming lands and changing the means by which Benders could financially sustain themselves. Several years later, the civil rights movement came to Gee’s Bend when Martin Luther King Jr. visited in 1965, encouraging Benders to cross the river to register to vote. Which they did. Shortly thereafter, ferry service was discontinued. Camden’s notorious sheriff, Lummie Jenkins, famously explained the ferry’s closure after the King visit in this way: “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black. We closed it because they forgot they were black.” The ferry didn’t reopen until 2006.
What did this isolation mean for the quilting tradition of Gee’s Bend? Discussions of the segregation of Gee’s Bend from society at large have often implied that these quilts somehow manifest a “pure” or “authentic” aesthetic that developed untainted by outside influence. Of course, no place or artistic practice exists in a vacuum and, though often struggling with adversity, the quilters routinely interacted with the towns that lay beyond the river’s bend. More importantly, the women had the camaraderie of quilting as a collective activity. “Piece by yourself; quilt together,” Mary Lee Bendolph said in an interview published in Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts (2002). She often speaks of the mutual influence among Benders and how they get their ideas for compositions from looking at each other’s quilts.
Significantly, the various Gee’s Bend exhibitions of the early 2000s were not the first time Gee’s Bend quilts took New York by storm. These “miraculous works of modern art” had made their debut four decades earlier, capturing the attention of art and design cognoscenti such as artist Lee Krasner, designer Ray Eames, interior designer Sister Parish, and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. In the mid-1960s, an Episcopalian priest and civil rights worker, Francis X. Walter, saw some quilts hanging outside of homes and, aware of how the river dam project had negatively impacted the area farms, ventured to suggest quilting as an alternative revenue stream. He encouraged the women to form a collective, named the Freedom Quilting Bee, and helped them market their work in the Northeast, including to Bloomingdale’s and, later, Sears. The Freedom Quilting Bee also served as an awareness campaign to draw attention to the social injustices taking place in the South. Thus, the series of Gee’s Bend exhibitions at the turn of the twenty-first century followed a pattern remarkably similar to the “discovery” of these quilts and their makers in the 1960s.Born in 1935, Mary Lee Bendolph was the seventh child of seventeen children. In her youth, she worked in the fields, and later worked in a variety of textile-related industries, including sewing uniforms for the army. She counts among her family members who practice or practiced this quilting tradition her mother (Aolar Mosely), various aunts and in-laws, her daughter (Essie Bendolph Pettway), and her daughter-in-law (Louisiana Bendolph). While she learned quilting by watching her mother, she said in the 2002 interview, “I mostly take after my aunt Louella, but I never make a quilt altogether like anybody. I watched Mama back when she could work, but she was slow and careful more than me.” In a 2014 interview conducted by her son, Rubin, she recalled her first two quilts. They took her two years to complete because she didn’t have enough pieces of fabric, which she picked up here and there, including pieces found along the road. She entirely hand-stitched them because her mother was using the sewing machine. Bendolph left school at age fourteen when she became pregnant and was no longer permitted to attend. Eventually, Bendolph would have eight children.
When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Gee’s Bend in 1965 and encouraged the Benders to cross the river to register to vote, Bendolph, inspired, crossed. She even attempted to follow King’s lead in drinking from a whites-only water fountain, until her sister — out of fear — held her back. She joined the Freedom Quilting Bee at first, but when she wasn’t getting paid for her work, she stopped participating. Her own isolation was compounded by her reliance upon her husband to drive her anywhere. Quilting threaded its way through all of these moments in Bendolph’s life.
Quilts were made to be functional and practical, stitched together from cast-off clothes and other fabrics to keep people warm as they slept and to block the drafts from old windows. They were not for display or for sale; they were a necessity. And that they were made from used clothing has always been a point of pride, as Mary Lee Bendolph explained in a 2006 interview with Matt Arnett published in Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt: “It hurts me to see people waste up things. … It makes me feel good when I take old clothes and make something beautiful. And old clothes have spirit in them. They also have love.”
There are some characteristics that Gee’s Bend quilts share — most significantly an improvisational quality that has in part been shaped by the limited availability of materials and a tight sense of community. Whereas European quilting is typically distinguished for its precision and strict adherence to established patterns, the African American quilters of Gee’s Bend may begin with a traditional pattern but depart from it to make each quilt unique. “I never did go by a pattern,” Bendolph said in the Arnett interview. “Didn’t none of us.” Whenever asked how she makes decisions about the composition of a quilt, her answers alternate between matter-of-fact pragmatism and divine inspiration. What’s available, what fits, and what feels right — those are her primary criteria. Her ideas for her quilts come from looking and everyday scenes: the back of a truck, a barn, the objects in a yard, the view from an airplane window, the photos from the newspapers and magazines that have been plastered to the wall of her home for decades. “Quilts is in everything,” she told Arnett.
She delights at the idea that these quilts, which she and her ancestors have made all these years to stay warm, are now classified as art. “They didn’t know nothin’ ’bout no art,” Bendolph quipped. “Didn’t know what art was.” At the same time, as she noted in a gallery talk at the Addison Ripley Gallery in 2009, “Prayer and singing have a whole lot to do with these quilts.” Her memories of her mother quilting include prayer, singing, and tears. The singing of hymns by the quilters have been part of every Gee’s Bend quilt exhibition opening reception, and Bendolph acknowledges God for the gift of quilting. “The biggest thing I know is the Lord is the one who fix it [the quilt] to go together for me,” she said in her son’s interview.
The Museum of International Folk Art’s quilt, Blocked Out, is one of Mary Lee Bendolph’s later quilts, which she made before ceasing work altogether. She began it in 2008, but her work was interrupted when she suffered a stroke. She finished it a year later. It is made almost exclusively of corduroy, with the exception of some strips and squares of cotton and a single golden-yellow patch of velvet that provides a visual entry point to the composition. The different fabrics are laden with their own respective meanings. Corduroy, for example, has at various times over the centuries been associated with royalty, the working class, academics, and hippie counterculture. Moreover, corduroy has a particular history with respect to the Freedom Quilting Bee and, hence, the region including Gee’s Bend. In 1972, when the collective contracted with Sears & Roebuck to sell their quilts, the department store supplied the quilters with a huge quantity of corduroy to use, and the material has been used by quilters in the area ever since. Bendolph’s use of corduroy, then, harkens to Gee’s Bend’s own history.
Overall, Blocked Out has a quilt-within-a-quilt design, all radiating outward from the golden-yellow velvet rectangle. The small squares and rectangles that immediately surround this velvet block suggest a more conventional quilt pattern such as “Postage Stamp.” Yet as the quilt expands from this off-centered center, it departs from the square-based orderliness of a traditional quilt into improvisation. Perfection is not the objective for any of these quilts. In fact, it is the imperfections — the worn areas, the tears, the irregularities of the stitches, and the bleeding of colors from one square to the next—that gives Blocked Out and other quilts like it their “spirit.”
Blocked Out offers many lines of inquiry and layers of meaning, including a door onto the often troubled narrative of an American place bound to land and legacy. Of the many chapters in Gee’s Bend history, this latest — of the Gee’s Bend quilt once again breaching the wall of High Art — is the most celebratory, and the most attentive to the history of a place and the agency of its inhabitants. It is also the most fluid, as only time will tell if the appreciation of Gee’s Bend quilts will be lasting this time and if the promises of art patronage are accompanied by economic and social equity.
Laura M. Addison is the curator of North American and European collections at the Museum of International Folk Art. She is developing the museum’s collection of folk art from the American South in preparation for an upcoming exhibition.