- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2006

ATLANTA

Brightly colored quilts, handmade by Mary Lee Bendolph and her neighbors, have enthralled museum-goers across the country for four years, hailed by curators as “jazz on the wall” and seen as a breakthrough of mainstream acceptance for Southern folk art.

But for Miss Bendolph, a 70-year-old resident of tiny Gee’s Bend, Ala., national fame has meant little change beyond a bit more money to buy material for her quilts — although there’s still no “big ol’ store” in town and the nearest shop is an hour away by car.

“They say I’m famous, but I don’t know enough to be famous,” Miss Bendolph says, breaking into a laugh during an interview from her home in the dirt-road community of 300.

A retired seamstress, Miss Bendolph was 12 when her mother taught her how to sew quilts by hand to help keep the family warm in their unheated home. “The first time, (a quilt) took me a year because I had nothing to make it with,” she says. “I can get things more better now.”

She taught quilt-making to her daughter, Essie Bendolph Pettway, the only one of her seven children still living in Gee’s Bend. She also taught it to one son.

The passing on of the craft from generation to generation — going back to the slaves on the 1840s Pettway plantation — in such an isolated community is what makes Gee’s Bend quilts special, curators say. What makes them unique art is their untamed, improvisational beauty.

“There is and has been an artistic tradition in this country of great significance of which we are unaware. It’s born of necessity, but there is still an aesthetic decision to be made that marks genius,” says Susan Crawley, folk art curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” are on view until June 18, when the exhibit heads to San Francisco for a last stop.

The 63 quilts on display, dating from the 1930s to 2000, were made by women in Gee’s Bend, mostly with scraps of fabric such as denim faded by fieldwork and washed flower patterns from women’s dresses. Subjected to years of snuggling to ward off the cold, then often stashed under mattresses, the quilts are still creased and stained as if they’d just come off the bed.

From the faded cotton of the Depression to the psychedelic flowers of the 1960s, and from checkered kitchen cloth to cornmeal sacks and Sears corduroy, the quilts reflect a century of American history. A 1975 quilt, bearing fabric emblazoned with reminders to vote, even speaks to a low point in Gee’s Bend during the civil rights struggle, when the ferry connecting it to the county seat was taken away after many Benders went to register to vote.

“I didn’t go by some pattern; I just be sewing them up. I hate to see something thrown away,” Miss Bendolph says.

But beyond bearing historical witness to everyday survival — like the 1950 quilt composed of jeans legs, ripped and patched with the bright blue spots where pockets once were sewn — even the oldest quilts display unexpected flights of fancy reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s abstract paintings.

A deep blue strip of denim interrupts a pale pink pattern of concentric squares. The precise black-and-pink square in a “housetop” design is missing a quadrant. And hardly any line is perfectly straight — as if all were blurred by the haze of a summer’s night in the South, eyes straining to see by firelight, tired after a day in the fields.

“Southern quilts are unique because they don’t conform to rules; they create a real new rhythm,” says Carolyn Ducey, curator at the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

That playful improvisation, those syncopated patterns that literally exist outside the box of conventionally meticulous quilts might have their roots in African mysticism. Gee’s Bend was called “Alabama Africa” in the 1930s. But to many, they’re as American as jazz.

Recognizing them as mainstream art might help validate their impact on the country’s culture, says William Arnett of Atlanta, who founded Tinwood Alliance, co-organizer of the exhibit with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Houston museum and Tinwood have now organized a second exhibition, featuring quilts by a new generation. “Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt” runs in Houston from June 4 until September, when it moves on to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, as part of a two-year national tour.

Far from the arts world buzz, Miss Bendolph hopes the original Gee’s Bend show will prompt people to buy some of the quilts that she and members of the Gee’s Bend collective still make today, bringing money into the community so they can get a general store, a gas station, a library, perhaps even a museum.

She also hopes to keep teaching quilting to children as far away as Chicago.

“Boys are better than girls now” at quilting, she says.

But she has no plans to skip town.

“I love to be here because you don’t have to lock up everything,” Miss Bendolph says. “It’s a good place to enjoy going around looking at water.”

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