What drew you to this story?
It was just remarkable, because it's a whole new art form. The quilts are totally beautiful, but aside from that, there's a whole history behind them. These are women who come out of a tradition that we don't think of as art, which is really naïve of us, because the black southern tradition is the tradition that gave us all of the music that makes American music what it is. We should have known that the visual arts would be that way as well, and we didn't know it.
How did you first hear about the quilts?
Word of mouth. All my artist friends who had seen it in Houston said," You've got to go, you can't believe this show!" Artists said that to me. So when it came to New York of course I went. And I was blown away.
Were your artist friends reacting to it in the same way they would to modern art—a Mark Rothko or a Paul Klee painting, for example?
In a much different way. They know Rothko, they know Paul Klee, they know that whole tradition, but this is something they didn't know anything about, and they didn't expect it, because you think of quilts as these patterns that people do over and over. But these aren't about patterns, they're about the way artists make art: they improvise and they come up with solutions and they use what's at hand. So it was just a total surprise.
Non-artists seem to find the quilts more accessible than they might a Rothko or a Klee. Is it the medium that makes the art more comfortable, or are people drawn to the story behind the quilts?
A lot of people are intimidated by art. Going into an art museum and looking at a Rothko, they think there's something they're supposed to know. With quilts you go look at them and you don't think there's anything you're supposed to know. These quilts come out of as strong a tradition, but a different tradition than Rothko does—there really are traditions to these southern black artists, we just don't know them, none of us know them. So the public's on a level playing field with everyone else. I think that the emotional content is also a big part of it. Then there's this whole emotional content that comes through in the art, it's like a Johnny Cash song or a Maria Callas aria—you know, the sadness in their voices, we really get that with the quilts, especially in that first show of Lorraine Pettway's. It's like going to a tragic opera—that history really comes through. The other part is they're so beautiful, everybody responds to how beautiful they are, just as they do when they look at a painting.
Do the quilters see themselves as artists?
Now they do. And that's going to make their art better. The younger generation who grew up learning how to make quilts but stopped when they were 16 and discovered boys is making quilts again. They understand that what people love about the quilts isn't that they're beautiful patterns but that they're these ideas that come out of the quilters. The attention is making a community of artists, of artists who talk to each other as artists.
Where did you stay in Gee's Bend?
I stayed with Mary Lee Bendolph because the town is an hour and a half from any hotel. I slept under one of her quilts and it was warm and beautiful, of course. Mary Lee made me grits for breakfast, and eggs and bacon, and I went to church with her. "Ye Shall Know the Truth" Baptist Church was in a jury-rigged tent beside the hole that had already been dug for a foundation for a new church. I can't emphasize how important church is in the lives of these women, and in every opening now they sing gospel, and they're good. I'll never forget Mary Lee just getting up in church and singing, that was just great. Mary Lee is a woman of glamour and dignity, with a big laugh that bubbles up and floats from note to note. There's also something girlish about her, especially when she takes the mike and sings in front of the church, the way she did then and does at every exhibition opening, swaying to the rhythm.
After church, Mary Lee's daughter Essie fried up catfish a neighbor had given her. She made it in the smoke house so it was tender in the center and crispy on the outside. We ate it with ranch dressing, sitting in back of Mary Lee's house, out of the wind, in the spring sun, next to the cyclone fence, talking about Mary Lee's life, while her nephew from Atlanta watched television on the closed in porch in front, watched over by photographs of Martin Luther King, Al and Tipper Gore and Mary Lee's family.
What was the most surprising thing about Gee's Bend?
The dignity and the strength of these women. They have had these hard, hard lives, and there's anger there, maybe, but there's no bitterness. They just stand up and they go on and they bring their families with them. I'm probably more in admiration of them than anybody I've ever met, because they've just come through it as extraordinary women.
You're an art critic—was reporting on this story similar to other art stories?
I've been sent all over the world to do stories. I've gone to India and I went to Russia when it was still the Soviet Union and all that, so what was surprising to me was that interviewing the women in Gee's Bend had so much in common with sitting and talking to an artist in Bombay or Moscow or Cairo or New York. Artists talk about art from inside themselves, they talk about the process of making art, and there are a lot of similarities about how they approach it, and it was very much the same in Gee's Bend as it is all over the world. And that was a huge surprise.