Friday, March 8, 2013

Gee's Bend

I spent most of January in Birmingham, AL doing Madama Butterfly with the opera company there.  I had a great time, but my most memorable moments in Alabama were spent on a day trip to Gee's Bend!
A two hour drive from Birmingham, Gee's Bend is an isolated community of under 300 people best known in recent years as a quilting Mecca.

My very fun little Fiat rental car on the Gee's Bend Ferry.  Gee's Bend is nestled in a crook (bend) of the Alabama river, surrounded on 3 sides by water. 

I will let Wikipedia or the description above tell you about Gee's Bend if you are unfamiliar, but in short, a collective of about 50 women make quilts which, after being "discovered" by an "art expert" in 2002, are now part of an exhibition which has shown in the Whitney Museum, the Houston Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian.  The old patchwork quilts, which were throw away pieces considered worthless outside of the warmth they provided, have been hailed by one reviewer as ""some of the most miraculous work of art America has produced."  This proving one of my dad's favorite sayings: "One man's trash is another man's treasure."  These quilts are indeed treasures.  I must add that there has been some debate recently about the motives of the man who "discovered" these quilts, some claiming he was profiteering and taking advantage of these women. 

The quilts are often familiar quilt blocks with a twist, like the one below, which is a take on a Log Cabin (kind of a Disappearing Log Cabin)

These quilt images first appeared on US postage stamps in 2006, and now the giant signs appear in several spots in the town, nearby where the maker of that quilt lived. 

I spent a couple of hours talking with Mary Ann Pettway, who was seated at a quilting frame, quilting in a pattern she called "rolling ocean waves" on a twin bed sized commission for a woman in Tennessee.  This one-room schoolhouse-type building where the quilters work was the meeting place for the guild is complete with a side room which housed a couple hundred quilts folded up or hanging on the walls for sale.  Um, when I say "For Sale", I mean like a car is for sale, not like a set of sheets is for sale.  The bed quilts typically run from $1800-$20,000!  These quilters are FOR REAL!

Here's Mary Ann working on the quilt.   She's a sweet lady, who you can see in some Youtube clips singing gospel music with some of the other Gee's Benders.  They supposedly sing together when they work on their quilts, though they didn't sing while I was there.  One thing I am trying to push myself to do when in situations like this is to be less shy with my camera.  I totally regret not taking a wide shot of the quilting rack, which was basically 2 saw horses holding up two wooden poles, which the two ends of the quilt were wrapped up in like a Torah.  It was a cool contraption, and probably easy to make.  They told me that it wasn't until very recently (like the '70's or '80's) that they had electricity in their houses, and therefore they didn't quilt at night.  They said they would quilt by candle or fire light, but it was just too dark.  They would quilt during the day, with the quilt hanging from the ceiling of the living room with ropes.  When the sun went down, they would pull the quilt up to the ceiling so they could do their evening activities.  Maybe I should rig up something like this in my apartment (cue wife rolling her eyes :) ).

You can see in the above shot that Mary Ann's quilt top has a large black arrow in the center.  When I asked her about it, she said the woman who commissioned this quilt saw an arrow in another one of Mary Ann's quilts and said she wanted an arrow in hers, too.  She gave her several fabrics to use for a guide, and Mary Ann supplemented them with some of her own.  She also commented that she also finds random letters and numbers unintentionally scattered throughout her quilt tops.  In this top she pointed out a patchwork of scraps which looked like a 3 and a 5.

You can also see in the above shot, what Mary Ann refers to as "triangles".  They are basically rectangles with two non-parallel sides, which are sewn together to make a larger rectangle.  Sorry I didn't include little arrows in the picture, but I don't have photoshop with me on the road...  One is on the far left, a black "triangle" together with a brown, black and white "triangle". 

Of course I wanted to show off my quilts to the Gee's Benders, and they were generous in their praise, but when I would show them a picture of a quilt, the first thing they would ask was "What's it called?"  Every one of their quilts has a name, which I thought was kinda cool- like a painting.  I am willing to bet that is a recent development, born from the "rags-to-riches" journey of their quilts from trash piles to art museum walls. 

Interestingly, when I chatted with one of the quilters as I was admiring their quilts in the "store" portion of their building, when I began commenting on the patterns "Oh, here's a disappearing 9 patch" or "I love this!  Is it a courthouse steps variation?" she had no idea.  She said many of the quilters just quilt what they like, and don't really know the pattern names.  That may or may not be true of all the quilters in the guild, but it certainly was for her.

On the way out of town I passed the Freedom Quilting Bee's HQ.  This bee was supposedly begun in the 60's, and proceeds from the sale of quilts produced were used to help fund the Civil Rights movement.

My time with the Gee's Benders was inspiring, and I hope to try out some hand quilting in the future.  I just need a bigger home!