I have a large-size book of visual inspiration called “Gee’s Bend: the Architecture of the Quilt”. Every now and then, I feel the need to look through it again – at pictures of the giant, off-centre, off-everything, bold modern geometric shapes. Made quietly by poor women in Alabama, mostly to keep their family warm – William Arnett, a curator saw their beauty and began to exhibit them (2002, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). It was an overnight sensation: displayed in a museum, they were at last seen as like abstract works of huge modern art. Although most of these makers had never visited an art gallery or museum, their art was right on trend for the large scale American art pieces in the Expressionist tradition, made at the same time, thousands of miles away in New York.
Quilted video – visual style
This quiet documentary by the New York Times interviews the women quilters and shows them at work in their homes. The 15 minute video is leisurely, and tells their story at the pace of life in the local community. It’s meditative, beautiful and infused with courage and spirituality, pieced together with unhurried video shots of the natural landscape around the creators, the women singing, the textures of their homes.
The poverty of the area, with very little access to new material, yet brought forth a colourful expression of life, with wonderful offbeat patterns rather than perfectly repeated patterns, as preferred by the white folks of the time. These quilting women lived lives which were not following an idealised perfection – they were making beauty out of hardwork, repetitive drudgery, in an economically deprived place – but sticking in that individual turn of mind, of spirit, of needle with flashes of joyful colour. As the women sewed together, their children playing underneath the quilt could hear their mothers singing and praying for them.
One lady quilter puts it very succinctly – she gets to choose what piece of material goes where. And she doesn’t care what someone else thinks of the pattern, because it is going on her bed. It is her quilt.
Another quilter says simply:
“I was always held back because of where I came from, who my mother were, who my father were, but I realised I am somebody, I can do anything that I put my mind to do it.”
The women speak of their joy at seeing their work displayed as art, in galleries and bringing joy to others.
“You can see love, you can see peace, you can see joy in different quilts… you can feel the love.”
Quilters featured include key makers exhibited in the book I have, and the gallery shows: Essie Pettway, Mary Lee Bendolph, Rita Mae Pettway, Mary Ann Pettway. It’s so key to not just read their words typed out but to hear their voices because then you hear the singing as they are together, whether quilting or being together as community. One unforgettable picture for me was a camera low to the muddy, deep flowing waters of the local river as the women’s voices sang – harmonies and notes sliding in their deep, soulful singing with such depths of lives: a perfect match of audio and video.
The women speak of how they become absorbed in the making of the quilt – how they were given quilts to work with as young women, to keep them out of mischief, but how as older women, they find it quietens their mind and brings them peace and absorption in the making; it is a meditation.
Delightfully, this video displays the quilts as they were shown in the rural community: hanging from a washing line. On certain days, the women in the neighbourhood would pin up their new quilts on their washing lines, then walk around, admiring each other’s work. They would take inspiration from this, and use a little idea here or there, but without slavishly copying someone else’s entire quilt. It was an intuitive, enjoyable gallery display. in a community. But more than that – as you see it on the video, the breeze lifts the quilts and gives them life: they move, like breathing in and out. This is appropriate, because the women are creating from a spirituality which honours the Holy Spirit, the breath of the Almighty.
Although being displayed on walls in a modern art museum let many see the quilts’ beauty – they were like butterflies pinned down on a display panel. In this video, we see them hanging in the wind, in the landscape where they were made, they move and have beauty. I realised that they are the flags the women made, of declaring beauty in difficult lives, of thankfulness. They are songs, a version of Tibetan prayer flags. They have attained their true form – they were never made to be kept flat and pristine wall decorations, but to be wrapped around the bodies of those they loved, keeping their family warm, taking on the shape of the person cosy beneath them. They are potential sculpture.
The majority of the Gee’s Bend quilts originally were made from worn out clothes, or scraps of fabric found by the roadside or offcuts of corduroy from paid for sewing projects. Often, denim workclothes found their place in quilts. What does this offer us now, in a generation where tonnes of clothes go into landfill?!
How can Gee’s Bend spark your own creativity? The whole principle of taking found pieces and working them into a new, colourful thing – and of making with joy and hope can apply to so many branches of making. So much begins as small scraps. Recycling words – you can find poetry and prose in other people’s throwaway words, conversations, even pieces of newspaper. Found visual sources have always been popular idea starters for visual artists: old postcards, photos, stamps, even ephemera like sweetie wrappers.
Look at what you are drawn to, and make something for your family or friends that you love – and see where that takes you. Take the little pieces and put them together into a larger whole.