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The Quilted Word

Crafted in an isolated community over the past century, the quilts of Gee's Bend live up to their hype.

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If you want to take a picture of my hands you need to get this side," says Mary Lee Bendolph, offering her palms for inspection.

Bendolph is one of 30 celebrated quilters from rural southwest Alabama who came to Memphis last week for the opening of "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" at the Brooks Museum of Art. Bendolph proudly shows her pinprick scars and the places where six decades of pushing needles through fabric have turned her skin into something like leather.

"I wanted to know what all this fuss was about too," she says, shrugging modestly. "People had told me these quilts were art, but I didn't know anything about that. I didn't know anything about them being art until the first time I saw them hanging in a museum in Houston, Texas. That's when I knew."

It took far less time to make a believer out of New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. When the Gee's Bend exhibit opened in New York City at the Whitney Museum in 2002, Kimmelman gushed and called these quilts, which were produced by four generations of "Benders" from the 1920s through the 1990s, "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." In an attempt to describe the massive body of work he dropped the names of modern masters like Paul Klee and Henri Matisse on his way to declaring, when "not rearing children, chopping wood, hauling water, and plowing fields, [the quilters of Gee's Bend] splic[ed] scraps of old cloth to make robust objects so eye-poppingly gorgeous that it's hard to know how to begin to account for them." And how could contemporary art historians account for such a lush and cohesive tradition of modern design coming not from New York or Paris but from rural Alabama? And not only from rural Alabama, but from the isolation of Gee's Bend. Even the artists continue to be amazed by all the fuss.

"I still don't know about art. I just sit down to make a quilt," Bendolph says, slyly setting up her joke. "If I make it level, it won't be art, it'll just be a quilt. When one side's longer than the other side, that's what makes it art."

While Klee was busy seeking transcendence through disavowing European art history, the women of Gee's Bend found God in harmony singing, in ecstatic, spontaneous prayer, and in quilting. As Matisse wrestled with primitive forms, Benders struggled to make the earth produce. They struggled with exploitation, isolation, and often with unimaginable poverty.

"Almost everything I make, somebody done worn the pants, the skirts, the shirt, or the dress first," Bendolph says. Quilter Annie Mae Young agrees, adding, "We couldn't throw nothing away. We had to use everything we had. Every bit of cloth, every bit of food, every bit of everything."

Located on a twisted inland peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River, there is only one road leading in and out of Gee's Bend. The isolation became even more severe in the mid-1960s when a ferry between Gee's Bend and the neighboring city of Camden was removed after a number of Benders crossed the river to march with Martin Luther King Jr. By 1970, a full year after America put a man on the moon, the residents of Gee's Bend still had to travel 15 miles to use a telephone. Electricity and indoor bathrooms were considered luxuries. A plantation culture had existed in the Bend well into the Depression years, and even among fellow blacks, the Benders were considered outcasts -- slaves who never left the fields, the exotic residents of a tiny Africa in Alabama.

"We didn't have TV or [electric] lights. And you'd sew until the kerosene in the light ran out," Bendolph recalls. "And that was it for the lights until somebody could go to the store and buy more kerosene. I learned to talk around the quilts. I learned to sing around the quilts, and I learned to pray around the quilts. Everything I ever learned to do I learned around the quilts."

It's neither fair nor correct to say that ever-deepening abstraction robbed modern painting of its narrative properties. Rather than functioning as easily read pictograms, paintings of the modern period became visual essays: coded messages sent from one artist to another. To that end, the Gee's Bend quilters have a tremendous popular advantage over the moderns. Their work is practical, casually emotional, and born out of the simple need to keep a family warm during the winter months.

Without access to diversion, oral histories were kept alive around the quilts. Diasporan epics dating back before the Civil War were told. The spirit of God was invoked around the quilts through prayers of deliverance and dreams were interpreted. The products to emerge from these lively quilting sessions are at once abstract and narrative. Faded denim and sweat-stained cotton tell a generations-old story of hard labor and hard life, while vibrant patterns call to mind the work of painters like Kandinsky, Rothko, and Johns.

"Right before my father died, he went out to pick sweet potatoes," says quilter Arlonzia Pettway, addressing the phenomenon of memory as applied to the quilt. "And so he's been down on his knees because you have to get down on your knees to get the sweet potatoes. And the knees of his jeans had gotten all muddy. After he died my mother wanted to make a quilt out of all of his things. And I can remember her taking those jeans and washing the mud out before she made the quilt." Of course, the narrative doesn't end when the last piece of a quilt is sewn. "When you have something that belongs to your family, you don't want it to get away from you," Bendolph says, remembering all the quilts she sold for $5 or $10 because she needed the money to get by. "It's something you cherish." n

"The Quilts of Gee's Bend" at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art through May 8th

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