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"All I know is that the museum's a better place because of the Gee's Bend exhibitions," says Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (shown here). "They expand the sense of what art can be." The new show (quilts are by Loretta P. Bennett) opened in Houston in June. (John F. Ficara; Collection of the Tinwood Alliance)

Fabric of Their Lives

There's a new exhibition of works by the quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama, whose lives have been transformed by worldwide acclaim for their artistry.

In 1962 the U.S. Congress ordered the construction of a dam and lock on the Alabama River at Miller's Ferry, just south of Gee's Bend. The 17,200-acre reservoir created by the dam in the late 1960s flooded much of Gee's Bend's best farming land, forcing many residents to give up farming. "And thank God for that," says Loretta. "Farming wasn't nothing but hard work. And at the end of the year you couldn't get nothing, and the little you got went for cottonseed."

Around that time, a number of Gee's Bend women began making quilts for the Freedom Quilting Bee, founded in 1966 by civil rights worker and Episcopalian priest Francis X. Walter to provide a source of income for the local community. For a while, the bee (which operated for about three decades) sold quilts to such stores as Bloomingdale's, Sears, Saks and Bonwit Teller. But the stores wanted assembly-line quilts, with orderly, familiar patterns and precise stitching—not the individual, often improvised and unexpected patterns and color combinations that characterized the Gee's Bend quilts.

"My quilts looked beautiful to me, because I made what I could make from my head," Loretta told me. "When I start I don't want to stop until I finish, because if I stop, the ideas are going to go one way and my mind another way, so I just try to do it while I have ideas in my mind."

Loretta had been too ill to attend the opening of the first exhibition in Houston. But she wore a bright red jacket and a wrist corsage of roses to the opening of the second show last spring. Going there on the bus, "I didn't close my eyes the whole way," she says. "I was so happy, I had to sightsee." In the new show, her 2003 take on the popular "Housetop" pattern—a variant of the traditional "Log Cabin" design—is an explosion of red polka dots, zany stripes and crooked frames within frames (a dramatic change from the faded colors and somber patterns of her early work-clothes quilts). Two other quilts made by Loretta are among those represented on a series of Gee's Bend stamps issued this past August by the U.S. Postal Service. "I just had scraps of what I could find," she says about her early work. "Now I see my quilts hanging in a museum. Thank God I see my quilts on the wall. I found my way."

Mary Lee Bendolph, 71, speaks in a husky voice and has a hearty, throaty laugh. At the opening of the new exhibition in Houston, she sported large rhinestone earrings and a chic black dress. For some years, kidney disease had slowed her quiltmaking, but the first exhibition, she says, "spunked me to go a little further, to try and make my quilts a little more updated." Her latest quilts fracture her backyard views and other local scenes the way Cubism fragmented the cafés and countryside of France. Her quilts share a gallery with those of her daughter-in-law, Louisiana Pettway Bendolph.

Louisiana now lives in Mobile, Alabama, but she remembers hot, endless days picking cotton as a child in the fields around Gee’s Bend. From age 6 to 16, she says, the only time she could go to school was when it rained, and the only play was softball and quiltmaking. Her mother, Rita Mae Pettway, invited her to the opening in Houston of the first quilt show. On the bus ride home, she says, she "had a kind of vision of quilts." She made drawings of what would become the quilts in the new exhibition, in which shapes seem to float and recede as if in three dimensions.

"Quilting helped redirect my life and put it back together," Louisiana says. "I worked at a fast-food place and a sewing factory, and when the sewing factory closed, I stayed home, being a housewife. You just want your kids to see you in a different light, as someone they can admire. Well, my children came into this museum, and I saw their faces."

To Louisiana, 46, quiltmaking is history and family. "We think of inheriting as land or something, not things that people teach you," she says. "We came from cotton fields, we came through hard times, and we look back and see what all these people before us have done. They brought us here, and to say thank you is not enough." Now her 11-year-old granddaughter has taken up quiltmaking; she, however, does her drawings on a computer.

In Gee's Bend not long ago, her great-grandmother Mary Lee Bendolph picked some pecans to make into candy to have on hand for the children when the only store in town is closed, which it often is. Then she soaked her feet. Sitting on her screened-in porch, she smiled. "I'm famous," she said. "And look how old I am." She laughed. "I enjoy it."

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