Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education
Included in the current exhibition Personal to Political: African American Artists of the Paulson Fontaine Press are a selection of quilts and prints by four artists from Gee’s Bend, Alabama: Mary Lee Bendolph, Louisiana Bendolph, Loretta Bennet, and Loretta Pettway. Expecting the exhibition to include only prints, I was excited to turn the corner and see three big, colorful quilts! What makes these blankets so special? Most quilts have a regular pattern, often composed of smaller blocks that are sewn together; the Amish quilts in FWMoA’s collection are excellent examples of these more typical (and also beautiful) quilts. Those from Gee’s Bend, however, are not so predictable. While shapes and colors repeat across the quilt tops, and the quilters might choose a favorite pattern as a starting point, the end result is much more freeform. Their improvisational nature is often likened to jazz music, in which soloists develop variations on a theme. Gee’s Bend quilters often improvise on the “housetop” pattern composed of strips of fabric arranged in squares (Loretta Pettway’s quilt above is one big housetop block).
Now called Boykin, Gee’s Bend was named for Joseph Gee, the first cotton plantation owner who settled in the bend of the Alabama River in 1816 with 18 slaves. Freed after the Civil War, many continued to live in the area to create an all-Black community who worked as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. While there is a strong African American quilt making tradition across the South, Gee’s Bend is unique due to the large number of quilters in such a small area and their long family lineages.
Quilting is a popular hobby for many crafters–you probably have someone in your family who makes quilts, and they likely prefer to carefully choose color schemes and patterns; but quilting began as a way to use scraps. It’s unlikely that someone would just happen to have a piece of fabric large enough to cover their bed, but they might have a bunch of old clothes that can be reassembled! This results in the slightly irregular shapes and brings more meaning to the quilt: an old shirt or pair of pants carries the memories and experiences of whoever wore them before.
A quilt is, of course, functional; but, the Gee’s Bend quilts are so renowned for their artistic sensibility that their designs are not out-of-place as abstract prints. They’ve been the subject of many museum exhibitions since the early 2000s, and when Pam Paulson of Paulson Fontaine Press saw them at the Whitney Museum in 2002, she had the idea to invite the quilters to make prints. Sewing machines and piles of fabric were brought into the studio: each print still began as a pieced and stitched quilt top (see the process here). Look closely, above, at the photo on the right and you can even see the fabric texture! Take a look at the quilt and prints below. What makes them “work” despite the lack of a consistent and predictable pattern?
Mary Lee Bendolph, maker of the velvet quilt in the foreground, commented, “I gather a lot of colors that might not look like they fit with each other and try to put them together and make them all work”. Pale pink, lavender, burgundy, and mustard are certainly colors I would never think to put together, but here, they’re harmonious. Bendolph is able to balance the variety of colors and sizes of shapes by repeating them across the top of the quilt, creating a sense of rhythm even though there isn’t a true pattern. Let’s try it ourselves! Gather your paper scraps and design a quilt top inspired by the Gee’s Bend quilters’ prints.
- 1 piece of cardstock or construction paper to act as the backing
- Paper scraps in 3-4 colors
- Glue or glue stick
- Marker or pen
Cut strips and smaller shapes from your scrap paper–stick to two or three different shapes but cut a variety of small, medium, and large shapes to create interest. Begin matching them up and laying them out on the backing paper.
It can help to work in “blocks” like an actual quilt: arrange some of your shapes in a rough square, then piece these squares together. Be sure to repeat similar shapes and colors across the surface and try to use up all of the strips you cut!
Glue everything down, and let it dry.
Draw dashed lines across the surface to mimic the stitched lines of quilting. I decided to alternate the direction of my quilting lines on each block.
Share your work with us here on the blog or via social media and tag #fwmoa!