"Like a jazz or blues singer teasing apart a melody,
the artists play off their grids with unexpected riffs
of color and form."
I can't remember when I first learned of the quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama, but I've been intrigued with their quilts and their story for years. I've envied those who got to see exhibits of their work in some of the largest U.S. museums. Then, a few weeks ago we read that some of the quilts were going to be in a small gallery an hour or so up the coast from us and I couldn't wait to go!
The quilters are African-American women who still live in Gee's Bend, an isolated island-like curve in the Alabama River, that was a cotton plantation built in 1816. Descendants of the plantation's slaves, many families retain the last name of Pettway, the plantation owner who required all his slaves to take his last name.
From slave times on, the community was, and still is, one of the poorest in America.
Their quilts were made from the smallest scraps of fabric the women could get their hands on, made purely for a practical purpose -- to keep their families warm.
Because of their poverty and isolation well into the 20th century, they developed a style like no other, all their own.
One of the early quilts, made of the men's well-worn work clothes, denim shirts and overalls.
Scarcity of material forced the quilters to find beauty and creative expression in unique ways.
"a palette of old shirts, overalls, aprons and dress bottoms whose stains, tears, and faded denim patches provide a tangible record of lives marked by seaons of hard labor in the fields of the rural South."
The Gee's Bend style is considered unique and one of the greatest African-American contributions to the visual arts.
Each quilt grows from the center out, with surprising colors, unusual patterns, and unexpected rhythms.
The little community was quite shocked when the outside world discovered their quilts in the late 1960s and began offering money for them, as much as ten whole dollars a quilt!
When museums began exhibiting the Gee's Bend quilts in 2003, most of the quilters had never seen any part of the world outside of Gee's Bend. Their presence was requested at the opening of a large exhibit in New York. They refused; no one would ride in an airplane! Some did finally did consent to riding a bus and the film about their trip is quite moving as these humble, sweet women have their first look at the world outside of Gee's Bend.
In 1972 Sears and Roebuck hired some of the women to sew pillow covers from corduroy provided by the company. They sewed the covers for a few cents ... and then used the scraps for their artistic expression: their quilts.
Seven hundred people still live a simple life in Gee's Bend.
The fourth generation of Gee's Bend quilters still create their original designs.
If you want to buy one, I hear the going price is now $2500.