It is an article of faith with many dedicated artsies that art is a crucial human need, and that the capacity to make art is bred into everyone. Unfortunately, it's not easy to come by evidence in support of this belief. A touring show now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and scheduled to visit the Corcoran Gallery of Art in about a year, comes to the rescue.
"The Quilts of Gee's Bend" presents 60 examples handmade over the past 70 years by the women of a tiny, isolated Alabama community, once ranked among the poorest in the nation. Despite the crazy odds against them -- for all the insane hardships and oppressions that these black women have faced over the years -- they've consistently been driven to stitch together some of the most interesting, complex works of abstract art that you could ever come across.
Gee's Bend is the traditional name for a tiny cluster of homes and farmsteads grouped around the village now known as Boykin, in the southwest corner of the state. All told about 700 people live there, on a pocket of land tucked into a tight meander of the Alabama River and almost cut off from the outside world. The community has shrunk over recent decades -- it's been easier to come and go since 1967, when the only road that takes you off the Bend was paved. But even when it was twice as big, all-black Gee's Bend was hardly cosmopolitan. Many of its residents are descended from a small group of slaves force-marched onto the Bend by their North Carolina master in 1846. After emancipation, the best Benders could hope for was some decently benign neglect.
The locals sharecropped for absentee white landlords, and managed to keep enough of what they raised to more or less feed themselves. There was plenty of mud around to fill the chinks in their log cabins, and an adequate supply of fliers with which to paper walls. "We lived the hard life," recalls old-timer Nettie Young, seen in a video screened in the show. "We lived hereabouts a starvation life."
With cotton prices rising well into the 1920s, a black family might accumulate a whole $1,000. In 1932, when prices plummeted again, white creditors ferried over to reclaim the tools and seeds and livestock of more than 60 Gee's Benders. That winter, these families lived on whatever they could trap or gather. (The county canceled ferry service in 1965. And this was precisely when the blacks of Gee's Bend, encouraged by a memorable visit from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., needed to cross the river to register to vote. They took the long way around in trucks anyway.)
Impoverished young Benders became symbols for Roosevelt's New Deal: Famous Depression era photos of Gee's Bend advertised the plight of these poorest-of-the-poor. They got windproof housing out of the Deal, and at long last a chance to buy their land and homes.
And all this time, through not-so-thick and very, very thin, the women of Gee's Bend took whatever scraps of cloth they could and turned them into quilts. They needed the coverlets: A winter night could call for five or six of them on top for warmth, and some more underneath to fend off jabs from corn husks in the mattress. But these women didn't need to pour endless thought and labor into making each a thing of wild beauty.
A quilt made in 1976 by Annie Mae Young, known among her fellow quilters as an artistic rebel, is pieced out of old dungarees, so that it becomes a kind of summer sky of indigo with wispy clouds of faded denim in it. And bang in the middle of this gentle field of timeworn blue, a flag of stripes in blaring yellow-gold and red. There is a deliberate disruption of expected order here, a willing mix of two rival aesthetics. (This and other Gee's Bend quilts are illustrated in the show's lavish catalogue, which also provides historical context for their making and interviews with their makers.)
A quilt from about 1965 by Helen McCloud, a newcomer from across the river who took up Gee's Bend ways, has a dose of 1960s op art to it. Several of the fabrics used are busy black-and-white affairs, or are boldly polka-dotted; others are solids, dyed in the era's iconic acid greens and oranges. They're sewn together in broad, irregular blocks, and then the whole thing gets a snow of tiny knots in deep-blue yarn, showing where the cover's front was quilted to its back. The magic here is in how the fussy, finicky and very regular knotting -- it's not used much elsewhere in this show -- undoes the simpler gesture of the bold patterned expanses that have been sewn together without order.
Another quilt dates to the 1950s, when it was made by the newly married Jessie T. Pettway. (Half the quilters in this show seem to be Pettways. It was the name of the North Carolina plantation owner who marched his slaves onto the Bend.) Jessie Pettway's quilt is a field of intense red with three broad stripes running down it top to bottom, leaving only thin areas of that garish background showing in between. Each stripe in turn is sewn from little, wonky strips of cotton in an entirely different palette: Washed-out pinks and creams and blues and yellows, with some occasional pale peach. It's as though the chromatic excitement of the plain scarlet background is being balanced by the patterned energy of the patchwork stripes that sit upon it.
I imagine -- I almost hope -- that these descriptions only barely conjure up an image of what these quilts look like. What's so striking about many of the Gee's Bend quilts is how they resist the kind of order that can be summed up in a phrase or two. There are few quilted checkerboards, or stars, or concentric diamonds in this show. That would be the easy, the obvious way to go, when you're trying to turn a pile of scraps into a pattern that can stand alone. The artists of Gee's Bend prefer to give themselves much greater challenges than such old standbys.
On Gee's Bend, repetition is allowed only with substantial variations; pattern has to break down before it covers the whole surface; symmetry is scoffed at; every ordered rhythm gets interrupted just as it begins to settle in. (It might be tempting to speak of "syncopation," if the term were not already mandatory for every artwork ever made by African Americans.) Visual non sequiturs are the norm rather than the rare exception in the quilts made on Gee's Bend. The complexities and irregularities of what these women have turned out can make the work of New York's most famous abstract artists seem somehow simple-minded and predictable.
As far as I can tell, this is deliberate strategy, rather than accidental outcome, in the work of these quiltmakers. There's just enough order in almost all the show's bedcovers to make it clear that aesthetic choices have been made. Only a very few of the coarsest quilts sewn from old work pants might have been made by joining on each scrap as it came to hand. In the rest of the quilts, the irregularities that break up the order can't be ascribed to simply running out of fabric before a pattern gets completed. In the 1970s, a local sewing contract with Sears, Roebuck generated piles of leftover corduroy; the quilts made out of it are as irregular as anything from leaner times.
It seems pretty clear that, for all their modesty of means, these women could have worked toward symmetry and regularity had they wanted to. But they deliberately chose another, stranger path.
Making quilts wasn't just a casual activity for the women of Gee's Bend, filling in spare bits of time with useful work that needed only half an eye. They took both pride and pleasure in the results of carefully considered labor.
"When they finished making those quilts they'd hang them on the line, and boy you could see them a good ways up the highway. And they was beautiful," recalls Mary Lee Bendolph, an old-time Gee's Bender featured in the exhibition's video.
"I love my quilts when I make them," says Essie Bendolph Pettway, one of the somewhat younger quilters captured on the tape. (None is very young anymore; the art form has almost died away in Gees Bend.) "They be beautiful, to me -- I don't know how to anybody else, but to me."
The way these women speak of quilting as a kind of obsessive occupation makes them sound a lot like their more famous colleagues in Montmartre or SoHo. "I'd sit there and quilt all night. . . . I just love all of it," said Annie Mae Young, and several other quilters also speak of late-night sewing, even after days spent in the fields. There was "nothing else to look forward to," as one of them put it.
Other women speak of putting together quilt patterns in their minds while doing outdoor drudgery, and then realizing them in fabric once back in the house. "You think over it," Nettie Young says to the camera, "and it come in your mind one thing and another. You get it all together, and say, 'Uh-hum, I could do that.' "
It's also clear that there is competition, here, and an eager recognition of who has talent and who doesn't.
And then there are the recognized rebels in this art world, who insist on going it alone just like your classic modern artist. Annie Mae Young, the enthusiastic sewer who made that quilt of bluejeans and orange stripes, couldn't tame her muse enough to join the town's famous Freedom Quilting Bee, once a source of income for these needleworkers. (For a brief moment in the late 1960s, Gee's Bend quilts were discovered by New York's elite; you could buy them in Bloomingdale's.) "They didn't want the kind of sewing and piecing I do, and I didn't like what they was doing," says Young in a passage in the exhibition catalogue. She relies on a kind of considered intuition to get her where she wants to be: "I work it out, study the way to make it, get it to be right, kind of like working a puzzle. You find the colors, and the shapes, and certain fabrics that work out right."
Mensie Lee Pettway, also quoted in the catalogue, comes as close as anyone to articulating an artistic manifesto for this movement: "Ought not two quilts ever be the same. You might use exactly the same material, but you would do it different. A lot of people make quilts just for your bed, for to keep you warm. But a quilt is more. It represents safekeeping. It represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history."
Which hints at one more area in which Gee's Bend abstraction may beat out New York's. Abstraction in the high-culture tradition has often been pure art for pure art's sake, without much leverage on our daily lives beyond the pleasure and the interest that it brings. The quilts of Gee's Bend can be about abstract values, too. But the way these quilts get linked up with the world around them -- in the used fabrics that they're made of, but also in the rich history of teaching and learning that is built into them -- gives extra resonance.
In the 1970s Irene Williams made a vibrantly patterned quilt from scraps of red-white-and-blue bunting with the word VOTE printed on it in block letters -- a leftover from the Bend's struggle for suffrage.
A work-clothes quilt sewn by Missouri Pettway in 1942 is one of the least striking objects in this show -- until you read a label on which her daughter tells about its making: "It was when Daddy died. I was about 17, 18. He stayed sick about eight months and passed on. Mama say, 'I going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love.' "
The Quilts of Gee's Bend, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through March 9. For information call 800-WHITNEY or visit www.whitney.org. The exhibition's ongoing national tour is scheduled to include a stop at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in February 2004.