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Book Review: Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts 
William and Paul Arnett, Editors 
Tinwood Books, 2002 
Hardcover (large format), 432 pages, 546 illustrations, 488 in color 
Suggested Retail: $75.00

Six years ago Lynn and I went to a quilt show in Atlanta that was unlike anything we had ever seen. Called "No Two Alike: African American Improvisational Quilts," at the High Museum's Folk Art and Photography Gallery, it was an experience that forever changed our concept of the quilt. Exquisite examples of abstract fiber art with assured line and vibrant color broke all the "rules" of quilting with an improvisational flair that carried these objects clearly into the realm of art. And all of them were made by self-taught African-American artists largely out of touch with the "official" institutions of quilting (and art) -- shops and shows and high quality cotton fabrics.

Now many other communities in the U.S. are experiencing a similar phenomenon with the touring of "The Quilts of Gees Bend." This collection of seventy quilts, from a small, rural Alabama black community, began to be exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in the fall of 2002, and later "wowed 'em in New York" when shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art this past winter. The exhibit, with two accompanying books, video tapes, and audio CDs, was the brainchild of art collectors and editors affiliated with an Atlanta publisher known as Tinwood Media (http://www.tinwoodmedia.com). Their passion for the project is evident in the comprehensive volume Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts that was published as a companion to the exhibit. This book is no mere exhibition catalogue. It is a more than 400-page, large format book complete with hundreds of color plates, historical and cultural essays, and photos of the quilters and their milieu. (It weighs over eight pounds!)

The quilts presented in this book are strikingly similar in style to the improvisational quilts of the "No Two Alike" exhibit - abstract, bold, asymmetrical, often strip-pieced, and reflecting far more interest in the impact of the design than in the construction details quilters often worry about. While these quilts share a similar style, there is almost none of the slavish copying that propels the sale of quilt patterns to traditional quilters. Many of the art critics who reviewed the Whitney exhibit of these quilts noted how similar they are to other art in the Whitney, particularly abstract expressionist painting and many of the follow-on styles. Some of the quilts, in the words of Houston Museum of Fine Arts curator Jane Livingston, "rank with the finest abstract art in any tradition."

At the same time, these quilts emerge from a culture and tradition about as different from the world of "high art" as you can get. The authors and editors of this book of course recognize the practical and domestic origins of this art, its use of found materials such as worn-out work clothes, and the domestic uses of the quilts themselves, to keep children warm and decorate the home. The combination of this practicality with the sometimes breathtaking beauty of these quilts is what gives them their unique power and poignancy.

While Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts has many of the characteristics of a coffee table book, it is not a surface gloss of this art or the artists. It is an in-depth look into the art and the communities which created it, including lengthy statements by the women about the origin and practice of their art. This passage from Mary Lee Bendolph reveals many of the concerns of all artists - technical processes, stylistic originality, and the question of influences:

When you go to quilt, you beat the cotton out on the floor, first thing, to get the dust out. Then sweep the floor - collect the cotton - spread the lining out and put the cotton back on the lining, beat it out, put the top on there, get your thread and needles and hook it in the quilting frame.

Most of the families down here did the same thing - piece by theirselves and come together to quilt. On my side, my family, we go fast, don't follow no patterns so close. Other families take more time, do slow work. They don't get out in the road much like us did. We just try to put it together and get it through with. We don't try to style it or nothing. Folks call some of this kind of stuff "crazy quilts" - don't know which-a-way it going. I never did go by a pattern. Didn't none us. 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.

It may seem to some that examining this indigenous folk art with the tools of art scholarship is at best incongruous, at worst, condescending. But the curators and editors who have produced the exhibit and its accompanying materials have a light touch. They are scholarly without being pedantic, respectful of the quilters and their work, and sensitive to the uneasy relationships that exist between the folk and "high art" traditions. The result is a beautifully written, beautifully printed volume with gorgeous color plates that would be equally at home on your coffee table, in your sewing room, or in your study. A smaller version of this book, The Quilts of Gees Bend, is only 192 pages, and features the quilts without much of the historical background.

The touring schedule for the exhibit of these quilts has now been established, extending into 2006. It will appear in almost every region of the country, so mark you calendar and plan a little quilt escape. If you can't make it, one or the other of these books makes a good substitute.

Here are the dates and locations:

June 14 - August 31, 2003 
Mobile Museum of Art , Mobile, Alabama

September 27, 2003 - January 4, 2004 
Milwaukee Art Museum

February 14 - May 17, 2004 
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

June 27 - September 12, 2004 
Cleveland Museum of Art

October 15, 2004 - January 2, 2005 
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA

February 13 - May 8, 2005 
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

June 1 - August 21, 2005 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

September 11 - December 4, 2005 
Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University

December 17, 2005 - March 12, 2006 
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

 

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