by madeleine peck
Quilting is certainly an American enterprise, especially in the context of the African American community in the South. But the quilts and quilters of Gee’s Bend are of special interest not just because of their beauty but because of the community that produced them. The Cummer is currently displaying these bits of history and cloth.
Located about 30 miles southwest of Selma, Alabama, Gee’s Bend (also known as Boykin) is located at a deep bend in the Alabama River. In this very poor African American town quilting was born of necessity, became a social event, and later a community-wide calling. During the ’60s, the quilters of Gee’s Bend played a role in the Civil Rights movement: specifically voter registration and the selling of handicrafts to boost families’ incomes. In return, the whites in power removed the ferry that connected them to the county seat, Camden. They were without ferry service for 44 years; it began anew on September 18, 2006.
It’s tempting to consider the Quilts of Gee’s Bend purely as a creative and geographic anomaly. It might be better to consider them the emissaries of the transcendent nature of the creative impulse. That is not to vault into an arena of hand-wringing sincerity, but rather to consider the similarities in thought process between the American artists of the 1940s-1970s and the works of Gee’s Bend.
Painters in the post WWII era took ideas from the European school and used them as points of departure for works and theories that would later be identified as wholly American. Manifested often as artistic choices, it is fascinating to see these choices mirrored in the works of an isolated community far removed from the Cedar Bar.
In this isolation (it took over an hour by car to reach Camden), classic quilt patterns began to evolve. Because the quilters used old clothing, bits of rag and old feedbags from which to piece the quilts, it was often hard to make the pieces fit a pattern. Eventually, new patterns emerged from the old, and more recent quilts are abstract compositions as accomplished as any in the canons of art history, using far humbler materials.
It’s this aesthetic quality combined with the poverty of the Gee’s Bend quilters that makes the works so compelling. Though most contemporary quilters understand the quilts as art, perhaps it is most instructive to view the oldest quilts on view…they were originally made to keep folks warm.
Gee’s Bend events
A Survey of Gee’s Bend Quilts will be on view at the Cummer Museum through August 2, 2009. The exhibit features 21 quilts created by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, almost exclusively the descendents of African American slaves. While the older quilts tell stories of harder times in Gee’s Bend, including the Great Depression, the Roosevelt era, and the Civil Rights movement, many of the newer quilts seem to resonate with happiness, freedom, and optimism through the use of their bright colors and bold designs. Today, the quiltmakers are free to explore their creativity as artists and not merely as homemakers. This very popular, widely-traveled quilt exhibition has received national acclaim.
Special programs and events for visitors throughout June include:
June 2, 4 – 9 pm Family Night Enjoy live music from Ritz Voices, a community quilting bee, art making and a variety of hands-on experiences inspired by the exhibition. FREE admission.
June 13, 3 – 4 pm Grandparent and Me Enjoy storytelling, art making and spending time with your grandparent. Ages 6 to 12 and one grandparent. Members $10 per pair, Non-members $15 per pair, Active Docents $8 per pair.
June 16, 7 pm Cummer Theater: Gee’s Bend by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder An emotional celebration of family tradition and the power of the individual, Gee’s Bend spans 70 years in the lives of three Alabama women. The Pettway women are strong African Americans, direct descendants of Black Belt slaves living in one of the poorest regions of the country. Commissioned for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and based on stories gathered from surviving Gee’s Bend quilters. This play was produced in partnership with Players by the Sea. Members and Non-members $5. Reservations are recommended. For reservations or more information on any of these activities, phone 355-0630. cummer.org