For Gee's Bend, a New Twist

"Housetop Blocks/Purple," from 2005, a color aquatint and soft-ground etching. (Courtesy Addison/ripley Fine Art - Courtesy Addison/ripley Fine Art)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006

"Look where He brought me . . . look where He brought me."

Mary Lee Bendolph was singing a hymn and clapping, and with good reason. Her journey from the African American quilting community that is Gee's Bend, Ala., to a reception today at the Addison/Ripley Fine Art gallery in Georgetown has lasted many decades and taken as many turns as a needle sewing a bed cover.

None was more unexpected than a stopover with her daughter-in-law, Louisiana, at a printmaking studio in Berkeley, Calif. That's where one day last summer, Bendolph, one of Gee's Bend's most-seasoned quilters, watched two master printers pulling a proof from a press of her latest work, a print in faded denim blue.

A filmmaker recorded Bendolph as a sweet blur in a blue-flowered dress. The great-grandmother and memory-keeper moved from one end of the press to the other so quick that her earrings swung, waiting for the work she calls "Past and Gone" to emerge.

"Goo-weee," Bendolph, 70, said softly when it did. "Not bad at all. That's gorgeous."

The strangely familiar collage of blue-and-red strips looked like a quilt, and yet not. It was smaller than a baby blanket. But the essential qualities -- the texture of ripped corduroy, the thick seaming of worn jeans, the loving jumble of piecework made to keep children warm -- were preserved. So was the haphazard grace of the remote hamlet of Gee's Bend, with all its deprivation and unspoken pride. Bendolph's special collage of color, texture, form and emotion had translated well to paper.

The officially minted artist laughed. And the quilter inside her sang.

Mary Lee and Louisiana, 46, shared that moment of an artist's euphoria a dozen times over two weeks working at Paulson Press, a maker of fine-art etchings. At the invitation of founder Pam Paulson, the women from Alabama translated their aesthetic from cloth through wax and copper onto paper to make six prints each.

This evening, Addison/Ripley's Christopher Addison will introduce the collection and the Bendolphs at his gallery. Twelve prints and four new quilts will remain on display through April 1. Tomorrow at 3 p.m., the women will discuss their work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art before returning to Alabama.

Two years ago, the Corcoran welcomed crowds to the landmark exhibition "The Quilts of Gee's Bend." The Gee's Bend phenomenon was already well underway. The exhibition of 60 vibrant bed covers had debuted in 2002 at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Upon arrival later that year at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, art critics had begun to write of the quilts, not as women's piecework but as modern art. Abstract expressionism emerged in a heart of crimson framed by patches of discarded jeans.

Paulson saw that exhibition at the Whitney and decided that it was "important work to bring into the mainstream art world" -- specifically, through printmaking.

To begin an experiment with prints, she had to secure the cooperation of the Tinwood Alliance, an Atlanta-based nonprofit foundation created by William Arnett to support African American vernacular art. Arnett rediscovered Gee's Bend and acquired and maintains a collection of hundreds of quilts. Through Arnett's three sons, Tinwood runs marketing interference for the quilters and manages the use of the Gee's Bend name. Paulson says she spent "30 hours" on the phone assuring Matt Arnett that high-end prints would do the Gee's Bend name no harm.

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