Earlier in this new millennium, an enclave of women from a tiny Alabama sharecropping town found themselves hoisted into unexpected fame for doing what they had been doing for years. The tight-knit collective of black women from Gee’s Bend had been making colorful quilts from scrap material for generations. But little did they know that the piecemeal approach and vibrant hues found in their quilts would suddenly land them in such venerable establishments as the Whitney Museum of American Art and force the world to rethink its notion of postmodernism in the visual arts. The New York Times lauded a 2003 exhibition simply titled The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, and these women were suddenly a well-deserved overnight success story.
A new exhibition at the Knoxville Museum of Art highlights just a few of the artists from the original collective. Mary Lee Bendolph: Gee’s Bend Quilts and Beyond primarily features works from Bendolph herself, as well as several of her family members. Works from her mother Aolar Mosely, her daughter Essie B. Pettway, and her daughter-in-law Louisiana P. Bendolph illustrate the bond of this insular community and its rich visual history. Alongside the quilts are also some noteworthy sculptures by esteemed artist Thornton Dial and “yard art” artist Lonnie Holley, but here their works seem like afterthoughts amid the irregular, expressive patterns of the quilts.
If you’ve never seen a Gee’s Bend quilt, you’re in for an unexpected jolt. The collective turned away from the intricate patterns and perfect stitches associated with traditional quilting styles for bold color fields and more abstract aesthetics. But this wasn’t necessarily a decisive style concern; these quilters took discarded fabric remnants and battered clothing and turned them into a source of warmth.
When her mother first taught her how to quilt, Mary Lee Bendolph lived in a home with limited heat and had no money for extra fabric. The seventh of 17 children, she made quilts that were utilitarian necessities meant only to shield the cold. Now arguably the most famous member of the Gee’s Bend group, Bendolph is a prolific artist in her own right.
But it’s not the complex history of the quilts that make them so enticing, although it certainly adds to their appeal. It’s the unexpected and lyrical way the quilts are built and designed, loosely based on a rooftop pattern, but not sticking too closely to any formula. Some are asymmetric and uneven, while several are stained and seemingly worn down to a muted patina. Mosely’s “Blocks” from 1955 illuminates the origins of the trademark Gee’s Bend freeform housetop pattern, while Pettway’s more recent “Two-Sided Quilt” shows how the style has evolved. Bendolph works with corduroys, denims, and cottons—the fabrics from her work clothes—and the textures of these fabrics hint at the scarcity of materials available.
There are also some noteworthy intaglio prints and an insightful documentary worth viewing, but the quilts really do take center stage at KMA. The works of Bendolph and her family are challenging, poignant, and steeped in history, while the show itself is a much-needed reprieve from the predominantly Eurocentric confines of contemporary art.
Just down the road, Bearden’s Hanson Gallery is hosting its own set of Gee’s Bend artists in its current collection, on view until September. Gee’s Bend Today: Messages from the Alabama Black Belt Region provides a thorough cross-section of thriving artists from all mediums steeped in the traditions of the Gee’s Bend quilters. Charlie Lucas’ sculptures utilize discarded metals to form figurative characters, while Ted Whisenhunt paints quilt-like Gee’s Bend forms onto wooden panels. The gallery commissioned photographer Karen Krogh to document the artist community, and her color prints of Lucas’ studio and home are humorous and playful. There are some quilts from Yvonne Wells with a more narrative twist. Her “Portrait of the King” has some disturbing vignettes of violence and racism, while Mozell Benson and Sylvia Stephen’s collaborative piece is a graphic black and white quilt.
Gallery owners Doug and Diane Hanson have traveled several times to the secluded Gee’s Bend area to select the artists for the show, and it shows. The works here offer a snapshot of the current Gee’s Bend crop and are an inspired complement to KMA’s show.