Photo: Curtosey of Museum of Fine Arts Houston
A look at the quilts of Gee’s Bend.
In the rural black community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, in the same geographic region that hosted the birth of the Klan, a group of women have been creating quilts for more than a century. The quilt makers are descended from generations of slaves who worked on the Pettiway cotton plantation, and later as tenant farmers. In some cases, two or three generations of women from the same family have been members of the same quilting circle. The Alabama River surrounds three sides of Gee’s Bend, partly isolating the area. In this small community of approximately seven hundred, a unique style of quilt-making has developed, uninterrupted.
When I was first introduced to the quilts of Gee’s Bend, I tried to single out what it was that differentiated these quilts from others.
Perfection through imperfection, improvisations and steady handy-work distinguish these quilts. In the book “The Quilts of the Gee’s Bend” Peter Mazio, director of The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, describes the quilts as “pulsating with a disciplined beauty rooted in both symmetry and a conscious decision to deviate from that order.” Just as a jazz musician is both fiercely disciplined and improvisational, the Gee’s Bend quilts exist in contradictory states. The women in Gee’s Bend stand behind music as their most important hobby. Like their quilting circles, local music groups often include two or three generations of voices; together they manifest an ‘ancient practice’.
In the same book, Alvia Wardlaw, the curator for The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, compares the Gee’s Bend quilts to the unique black art form of the Spiritual or Sorrow song. The same women who sang with great emotion in tiny rural churches or while working on fields throughout the South were those who returned home to create these quilts for their families. Wardlaw writes, “The importance of music in this community cannot be emphasized enough. Gee’s Bend women were surrounded by the soaring free-form notes of the blues and gospel as well as of master soloists, and this became embedded in their personas. Just as it became second nature for the singers they listened to—Mahlia Jackson, the Staple Singers, Shirley Caesar—to play around with a note, so too did they become comfortable about straying into unchartered territory in their quilting style, producing compositions quite unlike the norms of American quilt-makers. Off the radio, into their heads and hands, a new quilt is formed.” (15)
When I sew, or make things with my hands I often think about watching my mother while she made things for us kids, or my grandmother teaching me how to knit. If I really get into the thick of making, I play a game in my head. I like to imagine, while my hands are working on something, that they are my mother’s or grandmother’s hands, so that in that moment they are living through time, continuing to create, to show and to tell. Looking at the Gee’s Bend quilts I think of time passing, lives being lived, legends coming into being, recorded for nostalgic memory. I think of history, respectful remembrance, teaching, learning lessons, sharing joy, beliefs and aspirations. These quilts are storytellers, vessels of cultural survival, portraits of these women and their lives.
During the Great Depression, Gee’s Bend was declared one of the poorest places in the United States.The Freedom Quilting Bee was established in 1966 in an effort to raise funds for machinery, tools, and places to work. Participants included many members of the Gee’s Bend quilting community. In 1972, the Gee’s Bend quilters obtained a contract with Sears Roebuck to produce pillow covers and baby-sized quilts. This contract kept the Freedom Quilting Bee going for 20 years, and played into the development of an entire genre or category of Gee’s Bend quilts.
A category of quilts called ‘Work Clothes’ exemplifies the narrative quality of the Gee’s Bend quilts. Examining the pieces, made of old clothing, one can imagine the women working in the fields alongside the men, hammering and ploughing under the hot sun. Spiritual qualities exist in these quilts as well. Often the garment remnants used in the quilt belonged to deceased spouses or parents, or to children that had long since grown up.
In certain instances, the quilt makers’ visual environment is recorded in the craftwork. The composition of the buildings and objects of Gee’s Bend lend themselves to the colours and geometries of the quilts. The complexity of these women’s lives, their experiences of raising children, working on the field, singing, and quilting, are recorded in the complexity of their quilt compositions.
Alvia Wardlaw writes, “Over the past 30 years, few students have pursued serious, scholarly research. The published results suggest a rich tradition that is lost—particularly for Black people that were forced to live as slaves and whose music and tales and paintings and crafts influenced America without the works themselves being seen clearly as artistic expressions in their own right. The quilts from Gee’s Bend speak to this invisible past. The quilts are products of the brilliant originality that lived through the dark eras of slavery and Reconstruction.” Wardlaw asserts that the Gee’s Bend quilts symbolize the need to identify and preserve neglected areas of human accomplishment. I have only just begun to scratch the surface of the stories these quilts tell. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston has done an amazing job compiling and archiving the history of Gee’s Bend and the quilts of the region, including detailed histories of the quilters themselves. It has been a pleasure discovering these quilts, one that I will continue to explore.
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend
Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Gee’s Bend The Architecture of the Quilt
The Museum of Fine Arts Houston