Jessie T. Pettway (born 1929)
String-pieced columns, ca. 1950
Cotton 95 x 76 in.
The Collection of the Tinwood Alliance
Mary L. Bennett (born 1942)
Cotton and cotton polyester blend
The Collection of the Tinwood Alliance
MILWAUKEE, WI.- The Milwaukee Art Museum announced today it will host the nationally popular exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend September 27, 2003 - January 4, 2004. A recent New York Times review praised the quilts saying they are "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced" and are "so eye-poppingly gorgeous that it’s hard to know how to begin to account for them." The exhibition was dubbed "the most ebullient exhibition of the New York art season" while on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Women in the isolated community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama engaged in the traditional art of quilting for generations, motivated by the need to keep their families warm. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend celebrates these unsung artists for their innovative use of materials and bold command of design.
The 70 quilts in the exhibition provide a rare look at a group of 45 20th-century artists whose use of motifs, techniques, and textiles both change and endure over the course of the century. Through special conservation efforts, the exhibition makes these quilts accessible to American audiences for the first time.
"This collection is an outstanding representation of a great American art form and we are ecstatic to bring it to Milwaukee" said David Gordon, director and CEO of the Milwaukee Art Museum. "In these extraordinary works, women from Gee’s Bend transform a well-known custom into visionary works of art."
Gee’s Bend is an all-black community located in southwest Alabama on a U-shaped sliver of land five miles long and eight miles wide, bounded by a big curve in the Alabama River. Camden, the county seat, is located 10 minutes south, directly across the river, but ferry service was discontinued in 1965 as a backlash to residents taking part in civil rights marches.
Ferry service has not yet been restored despite a campaign begun in the last few years to bring it back. Benders, as residents are called, are an hour’s drive from Camden and Selma to the northeast, an hour’s drive from supplies, schools and medical services.
The quilts in the exhibition represent four generations of artists who took fabrics from their everyday lives - corduroy, denim, cotton sheets and well-worn clothing - and fashioned them into compositions that more closely resemble modernist abstract paintings than familiar quilt patterns.
The women learned the craft from their mothers or grandmothers, but the emphasis was always on individuality, on innovation. Quilters made the tops by themselves and occasionally got together for the quilting. Most of the quilts in the exhibition are of the type known as piece, strip or patchwork.
The quilts in the exhibition are drawn from the collection of Tinwood Alliance, a non-profit foundation founded by art scholar William Arnett for the support of African-American vernacular art. Arnett, publisher of Tinwood Books, discovered the quilts, some of which had remained stored under mattresses and in closets and cupboards for close to a century. He first traveled to the area in search of Annie Mae Young whose picture he had seen in a magazine, along with her quilt. She pointed him to Gee’s Bend, a community of about 750 named after Joseph Gee, the first white man to stake a claim there in the early 1800s. The Gee family sold the plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845. Most of the people who live in Gee’s Bend today are descendants of slaves on the former Pettway plantation. Their forebears continued to work the land as tenant farmers after emancipation, and many eventually bought the farms from the government in the 1940s. Isolated geographically, the women in the community created quilts from whatever materials were available, in patterns of their own imaginative design.
Gee’s Bend became known for its quilts, briefly, during the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s when the Freedom Quilting Bee was organized. Many quilters in the community represent second-generation quilting within a family. Today, quilting is a dying art in Gee’s Bend. No quilters are working on a regular basis, and Arnett only knows of one woman under 60 who makes more than one or two quilts a year. In addition to the quilts, the exhibition will present an in-depth history of Gee’s Bend, contemporary and historical photographs of the community (it was photographed by Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Wolcott in the 1930s for the Resettlement Administration program), and excerpts from interviews with 30 quilters. A 20-minute video on the area of Gee’s Bend and its quilters accompanies the exhibition.
The Milwaukee Art Museum hosted an extremely well attended quilts exhibition a few years ago. Covering History: Quilts in Wisconsin was on view at MAM August 21, 1998 - January 3, 1999.
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, under the direction of Alvia J. Wardlaw, curator of modern and contemporary art. Co-curators are John Beardsley, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Jane Livingston, an independent curator, author, and expert on African-American folk art, and William Arnett, art scholar and publisher of Tinwood Books.
The exhibition is coordinated at the Milwaukee Art Museum by Nonie
Gadsden, MAM assistant curator of Decorative Arts. The exhibition comes to the Milwaukee Art Museum after running at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, September 8 - November 10, 2002; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, November 21, 2002 - March 9, 2003; and the Mobile Museum of Art, June 14 - August 31, 2003. After its stay at MAM, the exhibition travels to six other major U.S. museums.