The quilters of Gee’s Bend

Minnie Sue Coleman

‘Pig in a pen’ medallion
by Minnie Sue Coleman
photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio via soulsgrowndeep.org

Gee’s Bend is a small, isolated, rural community in Alabama in the United States, which at the start of the 20th century was mostly populated by the descendants of slaves. By definition, they were very impoverished, but their lives became especially hard during the recession of the 1930s. The families had been forced to borrow money at extortionate rates in order to buy seed, so that they could grow their own crops. When their creditor died, however, all of their animals and possessions of any value were taken away and the families were left to starve, surviving by foraging and with food aid from the Red Cross.

Eventually the land was sold to the families as small farms. In 1965, Martin Luther King visited the community; when the community supported his civil rights campaign,
the local white sheriff took away the ferry that connected Gee’s Bend to the mainland in retaliation.

Annie Mae Young

The women of the community had been making patchwork quilts, out of scraps and old work clothes, to keep their families warm in their extremely basic accommodation, without electricity, heating, telephones or running water. Due to the geographical and cultural isolation of the community, the distinctive style of the quilts, influenced by the makers’ African heritage and very distinct from European/American quilting traditions, flourished and was maintained for generations. The quilts are recognisable for their bright primary colours, simplicity and apparent disregard for straight lines. Much later, they would be recognised as high points of abstract art.

The women of Gee’s Bend had started making quilts for sale in the 1960s via the Freedom Quilting Bee, but their unconventional style of work was not popular in large department stores. The quilting tradition had really petered out in Gee’s Bend when white art collector William Arnett came across a photograph of a Gee’s Bend quilt, made by Annie Mae Young, in the late 1990s. He rushed over to the lady’s house to ask to see it. After a thorough search, the quilt was produced and Annie Mae offered it to Arnett for free. He, however, insisted on giving her several thousands dollars for it, and began to collect other Gee’s Bend quilts, starting a foundation and a collection that would later be exhibited in several national museums. He was however later sued by some of the makers, so his initiative was not uncontroversial.

The quilts of Gee’s Bend are now recognised as masterpieces of American art, and in particular expressive of the African-American experience.

Florine Smith

 

William Arnett’s foundation can be found at http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers. The site has very interesting background about ‘roadside art’ in the American South and also has biographies of all the makers.

Here is a very informative article from the Smithsonian:
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/fabric-of-their-lives-132757004/

A Guardian article about the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/10/gees-bend-african-american-art-met

There is a Facebook community here: https://www.facebook.com/QuiltsofGeesBend/

The Gee’s Bend quilts can also be found on Instagram:
https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/778831760/gees-bend-quilters-collective/
and by using hashtags.

Photo credits:

Workclothes quilt with centre medallion of strips (above, top)
by Annie Mae Young
photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio via soulsgrowndeep.org

Four-block strips (above, middle)
by Florine Smith
photo:Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio via soulsgrowndeep.org

‘House Top’ six-block ‘Log Cabin’ variation (below)
by Margaret Bennett
photo:Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio via soulsgrowndeep.org

Margaret_Bennett

 

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