Art Through Time: A Global View
Domestic Life Art: Blocks, Strips, Strings, and Half-Squares Quilt
Mary Lee Bendolph is one of more than fifty women belonging to the Gee’s Bend Quilter’s Collective.
The women belong to a tradition of quilting in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, that goes back at least six generations. Many are descendants of former slaves who stayed on in Gee’s Bend as tenant farmers after the Civil War and established a nearly all-black community in the area. There they developed a distinct local culture, including the extraordinary quilting aesthetic that is carried on by the Collective today.
Although every Gee’s Bend quilt is different, stylistically they share a common visual vocabulary. Playing with variations on certain key motifs, the Gee’s Bend women create quilts marked by bold colors, geometric simplicity, and dynamic asymmetry. In this quilt, Mary Lee Bendolph works with a minimal color scheme—black, white, and red, with touches of dark pink—and pieces together blocks of patterns, each comprised of a distinct arrangement of basic shapes—wedges (“strings”), long rectangles (“strips”), half-squares, and triangles. The result is a sophisticated design that excites the eye with its unpredictable rhythm. According to the artist, she finds inspiration for her quilts in every aspect of the world around her and prefers to use old clothing for material, as generations of Gee’s Bend quilters have done before her.
Every Gee’s Bend quilt represents a unique creation by an individual woman, who has designed and pieced together its top (the side displayed). However, the quilting—stitching together the top and bottom with a soft, warm layer of batting in between—is often carried out collectively or by other quilters. Some of Bendolph’s works, for instance, are quilted by her daughter, Essie Bendolph Pettway. Because of this collective process for making quilts and their utilitarian function for bedding, they have long been considered domestic craft rather than fine art. But the Gee’s Bend Collective appears to be contributing to a new attitude towards quilt-making. Since a major traveling exhibition in 2002, Gee’s Bend quilts have garnered high praise and frequent comparison to abstract painting. Today, they can be found in a number of museums across the U.S.
John Beardsley, Director, Garden & Landscape Studies, Dumbarton Oaks
“Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is a majority black community. It has been there for a couple centuries. It’s populated mostly by the descendants of slaves of a family named Pettway who owned the whole area as part of a large plantation in the nineteenth century. Their descendants stayed on as sharecroppers, surviving in very impoverished circumstances, and developed a remarkable tradition of quilt making, and often re-used salvaged materials, old field dresses and work clothes, to make quilts.
In Anglo-American traditions, the goal is to follow a pattern as closely as possible. In African American quilt making traditions, the goal is to break the pattern. There is a pride of the individual maker in these quilts. At the same time, it is a very cooperative exercise. An individual will make the top, but then when it’s quilted, stitched together to the backing and the filler, that’s often much more of a cooperative or communal exercise. What’s amazing about Gee’s Bend is there are a hundred women in the last hundred years who have been really exceptional artists. And exceptional at a level that we recognize as high art. The level of formal invention in these quilts is extraordinary. And they hold their own against some of the finest abstract painting in America.”
Arnett, Paul, William Arnett, Bernard Herman, and Maggi Gordon. Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2006.
Arnett, William, Alvia Wardlaw, Jane Livingston, and John Beardsley. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend: Masterpieces from a Lost Place. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2002.
Beardsley, John, William Arnett, Paul Arnett, and Jane Livingston. Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2002.
Cubbs, Joanne, Dana Friis-Hansen, and Matt Arnett. Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend Quilts, and Beyond. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2006.