Playing Favorites: Alyssa Dumire & Mary Lee Bendolph

We’ve asked FWMoA staff the hardest question you can ask art museum people: so, what is your favorite artwork currently on display? As “art museum people”, we often get asked about our favorite artists, artworks, and the art we choose to hang on our own walls. Since not all of our staff are front-end, and not all of them write for the blog, this series gives everyone a chance to get to know them, too. Taking advantage of our rotating exhibitions of artworks, from painted portraits to sculpted bronzes, FWMoA staff from all departments are choosing artworks that enthrall and enchant them; or, in other words, playing favorites.

FWMoA Director of Children’s Education Alyssa Dumire. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Alyssa Dumire, FWMoA Director of Children’s Education, has made the art museum her place of work for the past 5 years, and she started her career here as a volunteer docent. Her current favorite? Mary Lee Bendolph’s Untitled (Strip Quilt) from Personal to Political: Celebrating the African American Artists of Paulson Fontaine Press.

A quilt of velvet strips, mostly of purple, pink, black, and green. In the bottom left corner is one bright pink square of cotton.
Mary Lee Bendolph, American, b. 1935. Untitled (Strip Quilt). Textile, 2004. Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Q: What is the first thing you noticed about this artwork? What drew you to this particular piece? 

A: I first noticed the texture and shine of the velvet used in the quilt. I know that quilts, especially those from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, like this one, are usually made from scraps of old clothes; being made from velvet makes it extra special, like Bendolph either saved scraps for a long time to have enough velvet or bought it especially for this quilt. I am also drawn by the rich and unexpected color combination, especially the lone hot pink strip (bottom left corner)!

Q: Would you hang this artwork in your home? Why or why not? 

A: I would love to hang this in my home if I had a wall big enough and wasn’t worried about all the dog hair it would accumulate! I think it’s the right combination of easy to live with, but still visually interesting.

Q: What does this artwork mean to you? 

A: There are so many ideas contained within this quilt! First, it makes me think about the human drive to surround ourselves with beauty, and our ability to create that from something that would otherwise have been thrown away. For so long, the quilts of Gee’s Bend were “undiscovered” and created just for their families to use, but they still exhibited such innovation. I am also interested in how all of the quilters are part of this long family tradition, but are able to stand out as individuals within that. Finally, seeing quilts in the museum, especially alongside their printed counterparts as in Personal to Political, always challenges us to question our definitions of “fine” art (and whether that even matters?!).

Q: Any particular details about the artist or artwork you want to share?

A: Mary Lee Bendolph likes to combine colors that wouldn’t usually “go” together and try to make them work, and I think she’s done that really well here! Her home of Gee’s Bend, Alabama was originally a plantation, and the families who live there are descendants of the slaves who were forced to work there; the tradition of quilting dates back to that period, and was passed down through the generations. During the 1960s, ferry service from Gee’s Bend to the county seat across the river was disconnected to make it more difficult for its Black residents to vote. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited and led a march in which Mary Lee Bendolph participated, even following his lead in drinking from the “white” drinking fountain! The mules that pulled King’s casket in his funeral procession came from Gee’s Bend. The quilts of Gee’s Bend have been acquired by many museums in the past 20 or so years, which prompted even greater creative freedom from the quilters as they began to identify as artists.

Q: Why did you choose to work in an art museum? 

A: I have always loved spending time in museums and learning about artwork (especially the stuff I don’t like!). After college, when I was looking for a way to use my art education degree that wasn’t teaching in a classroom, the museum seemed like a natural fit.

Marvel at Bendolph’s quilts, and how she expressed her style in 2D prints, in Personal to Political: Celebrating the African American Artists of Paulson Fontaine Press, on display through July 18th, 2021.

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