09 June 2008

Quilts of Gees Bend

Linda Pettway, born 1929. "Logcabin" -- single-block variation, tied with yarn, ca. 1975, corduroy, 88 x 78 inches.

"The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making," says Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts.

About the quilts & artists from Gees Bend: The artists are all descended from slaves who worked a plantation called Pettway, located on the Alabama River. The plantation owner's surname is still ubiquitous in the community, and the residents still inhabit the land their ancestors once slaved. But now they own it. Through generations, the women of Gee's Bend have taught their daughters to quilt, using any piece of material available - from feed sacks to old work clothes. During times when self-expression was discouraged, their singing and their unique quilt patterns represented the women's only creative outlets. Geographically and culturally isolated from other communities, they developed techniques and styles with little outside influence; hence this quilting coterie has been compared to the great artistic enclaves of the Italian Renaissance. About 10 years ago, an art historian "discovered" these quiltmakers and began introducing their work to curators. Quilts that once kept families of sometimes 16 children warm inside drafty log cabins now hang inside some of the world's finest museums. Textiles that were once thought worthless now sell for thousands of dollars. A new sense of self-respect has evolved. And what is most extraordinary, despite their many struggles, the women are not bitter. Wherever they go, they leave behind a kind of inexplicable residual joy - as though they are unwitting ambassadors of goodwill and examples to the world that the key to true happiness exists in positive human relationships, not material wealth.

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