- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Paging through “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” the glossy coffee-table book accompanying the upcoming exhibit of the same name at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, it’s easy to see why these particular quilts have caused such a buzz.

At first glance, their jagged edges and unpredictable rhythms resemble the art of Barnett Newman or the Washington Color School. But looking at something in two dimensions takes you only so far.

“There are stories here to unravel,” says Raymond Dobard, professor of art at Howard University and co-author with Jacqueline Tobin of “Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad” (Anchor Publishing, 2000, $14 paper).

“It’s like a quilt itself, with layers to take apart,” Mr. Dobard says.

Quilts and quilt making have a long history in the black community, reflecting the diversity of ideas, uses and inspirations that characterize the makers themselves. Some early 19th-century quilts made for slave masters show the tiny stitches and regular patterns that characterize many Anglo-European quilts. Some quilts have hidden codes, designed to point the way toward freedom during the days of the Underground Railroad. Others seem to connect with an African past, having vibrant echoes of Central and West African textiles with applique reminiscent of the work of the Fon people of Dahomey, the former name of present-day Benin.

And then there are the quilts of Gee’s Bend, made by a group of women in a small community in rural Alabama. Gee’s Bend quilts are in a category all by themselves.

“Look at the geographic region,” says Mr. Dobard. “Consider the community. How did people learn from one another? You can see their life stories reflected in these quilts.”

• • •

Cut off on three sides by the Alabama River with just one road leading out of town, with a ferry service that was discontinued in the mid-1960s after Gee’s Bend residents began using it to register to vote, the community has been largely isolated from the outside world.

During the Great Depression, the community came to the attention of the Roosevelt administration. Two Farm Security Administration photographers, Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Wolcott, went to Gee’s Bend — in 1937 and 1939, respectively — to document the lives of the tenant farmers there.

Today, many of the residents still live in “Roosevelt Houses” built during this time. Along with the quilts, music forms an important part of the community’s identity; there are still about eight active choirs in the area, which numbers about 750 residents. And the quilts seem to have a kind of rhythm all their own.

“The Gee’s Bend quilts leave most people breathless. The show is one of the finest examples of juxtaposition and reductive image that you can find,” Mr. Dobard says, alluding to the spare, minimalist imagery found in the quilts.

• • •

For the past several months, a group of artists and students from public schools in the District have been using the Gee’s Bend quilts as inspiration for their own designs. They are participants in the Corcoran College of Art and Design’s ArtReach program, which pairs artist mentors with District students in a relationship that can continue over several years.

“It’s really challenged me artistically,” says Mei-Wah Lee, 17, a student at the District’s School Without Walls. “The whole thing has been really rewarding.”

Recently, Mei-Wah and her artist mentor in the ArtReach program, Jenny Featherstone, joined with ArtReach team leader Sharon Killian and her student Jalika Street to design their five-by-five-foot piece of the quilt.

“My aunt and my grandmother made quilts,” says Jalika, 17, also a senior at School Without Walls. “But I never really got into it before now.”

Now she’s into it with a vengeance, clipping and snipping at scraps of material and maneuvering them around the 5-by-5-foot square. Earlier, Mrs. Featherstone had stitched together the pieces of fabric into long strips, called “strings” in the quilt world.

“One of the things I really appreciated about the Gee’s Bend quilts is the asymmetry of it all,” says Mrs. Killian of the quilt design. “You don’t necessarily want to make this a figurative thing.”

It’s a long process, because the juxtaposition of strings — which might be three or four patches of the same fabric, stitched together into narrow, 6-foot-long swaths of color — is crucial to the rhythm and flavor of the piece. So as they cluster in Mrs. Featherstone’s living room, at her home in Takoma Park, the quartet is constantly circling, standing away from the quilt on the floor, making an adjustment or two, then standing away again.

At one point, Jalika launches herself headlong on the 5-by-5-foot quilt design that has been laid out on the floor.

“Oh, I like this,” she says, tucking a narrow strip of fabric, just about a foot long, between two longer strings whose width varies down the length of the square. The two are set off by the contrasting color of Jalika’s comparatively tiny bit of fabric, and the design practically “pops” off the floor.

“That’s it! You’ve got it!” the two mentors call nearly simultaneously, as Jalika — very carefully this time — removes herself from the quilt and stands up.

• • •

The Gee’s Bend quilts struck a particularly responsive chord for Mrs. Killian, a native of Jamaica, when she saw them for the first time: In their minimalist approach and use of color, they were eerily reminiscent of her own work in paint.

“I always wondered where my work had come from,” Mrs. Killian says. “But when I saw these quilts, made by people of African ancestry, I knew.”

According to Gladys-Marie Fry, quilter and author of “Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Ante-Bellum South” (University of North Carolina Press, 2002, $27.50 paper), black quilters often worked hard to ensure that there were few straight lines in a quilt, the better to ward off evil spirits, whose supposed wont it was to follow unbroken lines.

The painstaking process of design can also be seen in quilts dating to before the Civil War. The designs carried with them a set of visual cues to help those who were trying to make their way toward freedom. A bit of black on a quilt hung on a clothesline or fence by free blacks, for example, was a signal that the house beyond was safe. For a population that was largely illiterate, a quilt tapped into a different kind of memory.

“They functioned as mnemonic devices,” says Mr. Dobard. “Look at ‘Bear’s Paw,’ a popular pattern. It could let you know to follow bear tracks to sources of water as you were going through the Appalachian Mountains. It was a visual set of instructions.”

Because the story of these quilts is based on visual memory, rather than on written or oral histories, documentation can be hard to find. A churn dash or “monkey wrench” pattern, for example — such as Patty Ann Williams’ 1955 single-block variation at the Corcoran — involves right triangles, a rectangle and a square. It could easily be interpreted as just a symbol of work or one part of a pretty design. Or it could be something else entirely, a marker recognized by only a few who had been let in on its meaning of the moment.

“That’s precisely the point,” says Mr. Dobard, who likens the quilts to the sort of hidden codes found in spirituals, which also contained messages to point the way toward freedom — as in the song “Get on Board, Little Children,” whose singing was generally interpreted as a signal that an escape was imminent, under the guidance of an Underground Railroad “conductor.”

“It was a covert operation,” he says. “People needed to find a way to convey their messages in the open.”

• • •

Most quilts, though, served at one time or another the very practical purpose of keeping their owners warm. These were “utility quilts,” which used pieces of leftover material. The women of Gee’s Bend used scraps of old clothes to make their quilts, which is why so many of them contain work fabrics, like denim. Often, the middle layer of these quilts, the batting, was simply the remains of another quilt, too old to hold together any longer.

Viola Canady, founder of the Daughters of Dorcas and Sons chapter of the National Quilting Association in the District, remembers using the cotton from the fields surrounding her home near Le Grange, N.C., as batting for her family’s quilts.

“I’d sit up by the fire picking out the seeds,” says Mrs. Canady,. “Then you had to pat it out on the floor. Now all you have to do is go to the store and buy batting.”

Like many rural women, Mrs. Canady learned to quilt from her mother and grandmother at a very young age.

“I learned to quilt before I went to school,” she says. “That was almost 80 years ago.”

Their quilts, however, did not resemble the quilts from Gee’s Bend.

“My mother worked as a seamstress for white people, and they let her have the leftover scraps of material,” she says. “We didn’t have to tear up our old clothes.”

But when she moved to the District in 1945, she found that most people didn’t want to keep quilting.

“I couldn’t get anybody,” she says. “People would say, ‘I slept on quilts in the country. I don’t want to do that now.’”

It wasn’t until 1979 that Mrs. Canady was able to find enough quilters to form Daughters of Dorcas. And that wasn’t until word spread that she had actually sold a quilt — for $3,000.

Since then, a few male quilters have joined the Daughters of Dorcas, so now they are the Daughters of Dorcas and Sons. They get together every Tuesday at Calvary Episcopal Church in Northeast for a morning of quilting.

Mrs. Canady’s quilts have been displayed at the Smithsonian, the Sumner Museum and the Library of Congress. She even did one, a reproduction of an Underground Railroad-era coded quilt, for the Black Fashion Museum on Vermont Avenue NW.

But she doesn’t sleep on one.

“As many quilts as I have made, I sleep on a wool blanket,” she says, laughing. “Today, quilts are something you want to hang on the wall.”

• • •

The Daughters of Dorcas and Sons is just one of the many quilt guilds that operate in the Washington area. Virginia and Maryland boast quilting groups of their own, operating out of community centers, senior citizens homes, and people’s homes. New and traditional patterns are available from shops like Capital Quilts in Gaithersburg, one of the dozen or so quilt supply shops that ring the District.

“People are making smaller quilts now,” says Gary McLaughlin, co-owner of Capital Quilts along with wife Susan. “That way, they can get through a project faster.”

The store boasts more than 2,500 bolts of fabric. It offers classes for beginning to advanced quilters almost every night. And it even supplies the materials to match the patterns.

“So much of modern life, especially women’s work, is isolated or behind a computer,” says Mrs. McLaughlin. “This is a real opportunity for [quilters] to express themselves and be with others.”

“I kind of think of it as the front porch,” adds Mr. McLaughlin. “Most people don’t have front porches anymore. Now it’s the quilt shop.”

Still, many quilters prefer to choose their own fabrics, making what they call “scrap quilts,” just like the women of Gee’s Bend.

“When you are choosing what some other designer thinks is great, [the project] just doesn’t have the same energy and interest,” says Mrs. McLaughlin.

Because, in the end, art is not the only thing that goes into crafting a quilt. What matters most is individual spirit. So you can’t just appreciate a creation by looking in a book.

Mr. Dobard puts the point on it.

“You’ve got to stand in front of them,” he says of the quilts. “That’s when you see textures as well as colors. That’s when you can feel the connection to the realm of the spirit.”

WHAT: “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend”

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

WHEN: The exhibit opens Saturday and runs through May 17. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday-Monday and 10 a.m.-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

WHAT: Sunday Traditions: Community Quilt. Sunday Traditions are monthly events designed to encourage artful dialogue between children ages 5 to 10 and their adult companions. On Feb. 22, with the help of local artist Kathleen Manning, quilters and their adult companions will design and sew their own fabric-based works of art, courtesy of G Street Fabrics . Future Sunday Traditions will be held on March 21, April 18 and May 16.

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

WHEN: 2:30 p.m. Feb. 22

TICKETS: $5 per child. Adult companions free with museum admission

INFORMATION: 202/639-1727 for reservations. See www.corcoran.org/education/family.htm.

WHAT: Family Day: Piecing It Together. The quilters who took part in the Sunday Traditions program on Feb. 22 will add their pieces to the community quilt. Art-making workshops, storytelling, live music, theatrical performances, and family tours of the Gee’s Bend exhibit are included.

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

WHEN: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 28

TICKETS: Free

INFORMATION: 202/639-1727 for reservations. See www.corcoran.org/education/family.htm for more information.

WHAT: “Voices of Gee’s Bend: A Gospel Brunch,” featuring vocalists from several of the choirs of Gee’s Bend, Ala.

WHERE: Cafe des Artistes, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW

WHEN: Seatings at 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30 p.m. Feb. 29

TICKETS: $23.95 adults, $10.95 children under 12. Price includes general admission to the museum. Reservations for groups of four or more now being taken.

INFORMATION: 202/639-1786 for reservations. See www.corcoran.org and click on “calendar” for Feb. 29.

Learning more about quilts

Beyond Gee’s Bend and the Corcoran there’s a world of quilts to explore, along with their fabrics and their hidden messages. Try these resources:

Other museums

m 17th and M streets NW. Viola Canady, founder of the local quilting group the Daughters of Dorcas and Sons, has a quilt on view here. The museum is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. The archives are open by appointment 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. 202/442-6046.

@Subhed.sans:Lectures m ‘Quilts as Codes: Secrets of The Underground Railroad’: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the International Spy Museum, 800 F St. NW. This lecture by Raymond Dobard, professor of art at Howard University and co-author with Jacqueline Tobin of “Hidden in Plain View: the Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad,” will explore how quilts were used to communicate with slaves navigating their escape to freedom. Presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum in honor of Black History Month, it is sold out. Call the museum at 202/393-7798 for further information.

Fabrics m Capital Quilts: 15926 Luanne Drive, Gaithersburg. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. A quilter’s trove of 2,500 bolts of fabric, featuring a “Giant Show and Tell” — an open invitation to everyone to show anything they’ve made — this Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. 301/527-0598, www.capitalquilts.com m G Street Fabrics: 11854 Rockville Pike (301/231-8998) and locations in Centreville (703/818-8090), Woodbridge (703/494-5900) and Falls Church (703/241-1700). Fabrics and quilting clubs. Rockville store open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. See www.gstreetfabrics.com

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