- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

Gee’s Bend, Ala., is an unusually isolated community surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The Depression left the inhabitants, tenant-farmer descendants of freed slaves, destitute. In 1937, the town was discovered by the Farm Security Administration, and photographer Edward Rothstein was dispatched to document it as an example of the desperate rural poverty caused by tenancy.

By 1939, providentially it turned out, the town had become a test case for New Deal land reform. The government bought out the landlord, divided the district into homesteads and sold them to the Gee’s Benders. Owning their own land allowed town residents to weather the struggles associated with the civil rights movement relatively untouched, losing only their ferry service, which was stopped to prevent them from joining the marches at the county seat across the river.

The town was again the focus of liberal attention later in the 1960s. Some of the townswomen’s quilts, hanging out for sale, caught the eye of a local minister. An auction was held in New York, and eventually the quilters, working in a collective called the Freedom Bee, sewed quilts for Bloomingdale’s, until the store tired of complaints about irregular workmanship.

The quilters, many of whom complained anyway about the store designs and pressure to make each quilt uniform, settled in to make money sewing corduroy shams for Sears. In their spare time, many of them continued to make their own quilts, some of which are on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” an exhibition that will travel through December 2006.

Although the oldest surviving Gee’s Bend quilts date only to the 1930s, oral history extends the town’s quilting tradition to the 19th century. The women of the community originally made quilts out of need, to keep their families warm in the unheated and drafty pitch-and-pine houses in which they lived. Sleeping on corn-husk mattresses and with literally nothing else to make them comfortable, families relied on large numbers of quilts to stay warm.

The quilters used anything they could find, most often clothes too worn to be mended again and, later, scraps they had bought from time to time or been given. Interviews with the artists, published in the catalog and excerpted in an accompanying film, an audio guide and on some of the gallery labels, show that quilting was almost an obsession for many of them, an obsession only partially explained by practical necessity.

Patchwork quilts are made up of three parts — a pieced top, a layer of batting and a backing — that are held together by small stitches reaching from front to back. The Gee’s Bend quilters often conceived, composed and refined their designs during long days of unrelenting physical work — in the fields; cooking; doing housework; caring for children, husbands and the sick; doing domestic work for hire; working in factories. Later, they tore, laid out and pieced them alone, sometimes late at night.

One lady never started quilting until she had at least 10 tops done. Another, Lucy T. Pettway, one of the most masterful quilters in the exhibition, used to work a block or two (the patchwork units that make up a full top) during her short noon break in the fields; when she gave up fieldwork and stayed home, she made quilts “most all the time.”

Patterns engrossed them. One woman described how, once in a while, something from the newspaper her family had plastered on the walls to keep out the wind caught her eye and got her “interested” enough to “work out” a new design.

Essie Bendolph Pettway, one of the few mature quilters still active in Gee’s Bend, makes quilts after working all day doing pick-work at a sewing factory; her precise descriptions of her work give a sense of deliberation and focus that is common to many of the quilters.

Denied the solitude and leisure many artists take for granted, these women thought constantly about their quilts. Their words can be taken as almost textbook descriptions of fundamental artistic practice: the setting and solution (single-mindedly pursued) of an artistic problem. In the case of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, the problem was most often to make a variation or version of a favorite local pattern using the scraps at hand: the Housetop, say, or a Work Clothes quilt, or a Log Cabin or a Bricklayer.

The women’s often insistent words reveal, too, impressive virtuosity — they often worked out their designs in their minds, without benefit of pencil, paper or design books, and from memory pieced them in their laps in short sittings. Their words also reveal the quilts’ undeniable metaphysical meanings. Made sometimes from a dead person’s clothes or other scraps, the quilts, while not sentimental things, were intended by their makers as documents of personal, family and local history — as memorials, talismans almost.

The individual artists made up a typical, if intense, school of art. After piecing their works alone, the women got together to quilt them. Patterns and craft knowledge were passed down to little girls from mothers, cousins and friends, and in a classic cycle of adaptation and innovation, the group of quilters altered, improved and extended their art form.

In Gee’s Bend, influences ran naturally between quilters; across generations; and among sisters, stepmothers, cousins, mothers, an occasional outsider and a notably great technician or two. New materials inspired them and caused them to modify their forms, techniques and palettes. Serious, if friendly, competition thrived.

A sociable activity of women in the seasons when there wasn’t as much work to do outside and there wasn’t television, the group quilting seems to lie a little off from the more solitary conception and piecing of the tops, which gave daily solace and respite from hard work and hard circumstances.

Much of this context is to be found in the catalog, film and acoustiguide, but not in the galleries, which are organized simply and effectively by quilt type, material and motif. The individuality of the makers comes across forcefully, and the variety of styles and touch is great.

The Work Clothes quilts — winter-weight quilts in an extremely nuanced palette of blues, grays, pale lavenders and sage greens — carry the greatest emotional signal of any quilts in the show, marked as they are with the shadows or vestiges of pockets, let-out seams, and worn-out knees and seats. They are beautifully calibrated, resonant works.

There is an overall tendency in many of the quilts toward extremely dynamic designs with broad areas of color and shadow, often arranged into thrilling, asymmetrical but fully resolved compositions. The triangle-motif quilts have a pungency and energy that take you far, far away from sweet Americana despite a superficial resemblance to more familiar New England or Pennsylvania quilt types.

The quilts of Gee’s Bend are unusually rich expressions of an unfamiliar artistic tradition. Although our appreciation of their formal accomplishment, emotional vividness and beauty is certainly enhanced by the interesting historical circumstances that surround them, the salient things here are the quilts, which are not to be missed. This is an altogether satisfying show.

WHAT: “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW

WHEN: Through May 17. Gallery hours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Friday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed every Tuesday and April 15 and 16.

TICKETS: Admission $5 individuals, $4 seniors, $3 students with ID, $8 family, free to gallery members and children under 12, free to all on Mondays and after 5 p.m. on Thursdays

INFORMATION: 202/639-1700 or www.corcoran.org

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