Gee's Bend Quilts
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
Dream realized: Back in March, my partners and I went to the Bay Area for my newphew's wedding. We stayed a few extra days so that we could explore and enjoy Queertown USA. We got to enjoy a number of things in Oakland and in San Francisco, but the best by far was unexpectedly stumbling into an exhibit of the Gee's Bend Quilts at the de Young Museum as part of an incredible exhibit of art from the African American south.
My mom told me about these beautiful quilts when I began quilting a few years ago, and I've been entranced by them ever since. They are breathtaking pieces of functional art, which is my favorite kind. If you haven't heard about Gee's Bend, or their incredible quilts, here's the description of them that hung in the de Young Museum gallery:
"Located 30 miles southwest of Selma, Alabama, Gee's Bend is a thumb-shaped piece of land surrounded on 3 sides by the Alabama River. Because it has been isolated due to geography, politics, and social circumstances, the Gee's Bend community has preserved a rare continuity in its distinctive artistic traditions. Many of its families are descendants of slaves. Dinah Miller, who was brought to Alabama from Africa on an outlaw slave ship around 1859, was Gee's Bend's earliest identified quilt maker. She helped establish a tradition that was passed down through subsequent generations."
Salvaging fabric scraps from bed linens, feed sacks, and old word clothes, the women of Gee's Bend incorporated the remnants of daily life into inventive works of art, which were primarily made to keep their families warm. These artists often refer to their distinctive quilting styles as, "my way," an approach that adapts and expands basic traditional patterns through innovative abstraction and rhythmic improvisation. Their collective achievements are now viewed as an important chapter in the history of American Art."
There are so many things I love about these quilts. I love the designs that are clearly riffing off traditional quilt patterns, and the ones that are just doing their own thing. I love the fact that not a single one of them has a perfectly squared corner, and even more than that: I love that squared corners seem to be nowhere on the list of priorities for any of these quilt makers. These pieces embody for me the beauty and true spirit of patchwork quilting: they are born of necessity, and created with the most immediately available resources. They are intended to keep someone's family warm. They are made to be used, loved, and passed down for generations; it's clear that no one meant for them to be archivally preserved or picture-perfect. Even though these quilts were intended to be on beds of loved ones much more than they were intended to be hung in art galleries, the artists put such creativity into their quilts. As someone who creates usable art as gifts for people I love, I find so much resonance in that pursuit. I want to give homemade items that are as thoughtful, lush, and vibrant as the people I choose as my family.
I am super sad when I make a functional piece for someone (be it an embroidered tea towel, a quilt, or something else) and they keep it hidden in a drawer so it doesn't get used and sullied. But that denies the object of its intended use in the world! I remember when I was doing laundry for a friend of mine who was sick, and I came across some tea towels that I'd made her sitting in her laundry pile. The towels were stained, yellowed, and had clearly been used and well-loved by my friend since I'd given them to her. I could not have been more thrilled! I was so happy to see that something I'd made had become a functional piece of her everyday life. It's nice to be a part of a friend's life in small ways even when you're not there in person. I think it's things like that which help keep connections between people alive, fresh, and new. To hide a handmade gift in a drawer or box is to stifle the relationship with that person! Relationships and functional art are best experienced through interaction.
"I am looking for the holes, the holes in your jeans. Because I want to know: are they worn out in the seat or are they worn out in the knees?"
- Ani DiFranco
I am often frustrated that activities which fall into the "crafting" or "functional" category get looked down upon. Things like embroidery, quilting, knitting, and papercraft are not considered "serious" art forms in the same way as painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, or even photography. Incidentally, guess which of those activities are historically considered "women's work"? (Yes, hello cultural sexism: we see you at work there.)
I had no idea what a treat I was in for the day we walked into the de Young Museum, but when I walked around that corner and into the gallery housing these quilts, I gasped audibly. My breath was quite literally taken away. Seeing the photos is nothing like standing among these in person. I am in awe of these giants and their creators.