How did the quilts of Gee’s Bend go from beloved bed coverings to symbols of American art adorning walls across the world?
For the past century, the women of Gee’s Bend have been celebrating their culture through the art of quilting. Until a few decades ago, their art was a way to stay warm and create some beauty along the way. Now, their work hangs among that of some of the world’s most famous impressionist artists.
The story of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama has simple roots. For those living in a remote community in a bend in the Alabama River, working with what you had around was a way of life. And, for generations, quilting together pieces of old clothing or bits of found cloth was the way you kept your family warm.
Over the years, mothers passed down their styles and techniques to their daughters and granddaughters. As the generations passed, they created a rich tradition of patterns and styles that have been compared to some of the world’s most well-known modern and abstract artists. Now, those same beautiful quilts that once adorned beds and kept tucked away in chests are now being celebrated worldwide, traveling the country with exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This story of the Gee’s Bend quilters is a beautiful reminder to recognize the beauty of our own cultures.
Our quilts, our art, our food, our musical traditions, and our craftsmanship are our closest links to the generations that came before us.
The Legacy of the Gee’s Bend Quilters
Quilting has long been a tradition for the women of Gee’s Bend. Using scraps from old clothes and fabric found along the side of the road, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and neighbors gathered together to make quilts for the family to sleep on and under to stay warm.
Through the generations, a unique artistic flair began to emerge in Gee’s Bend. And while the quilts were still primarily a source of warmth and a symbol of tradition, they were also beautiful representations of the quilter’s own style.
In the late 1990s, art collector William Arnett took notice of the folk art tradition the Gee’s Bend quilts represented. And in 2002, he helped arrange an exhibition of some of the quilts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas. Since then, the quilts have become iconic treasures. They represent generations of knowledge that has been passed down. And now, as their work travels the world, the quilters themselves are being recognized for their incredible contributions to the history of American art.
As with any story, it’s best to hear about it from those who have lived it firsthand. Here’s a beautiful short film by Ethan Payne to introduce us to some of the women of Gee’s Bend.
AIR Serenbe is an artist residency program at the Serenbe Institute in Serenbe, Georgia. Their mission is to advance the arts, culture, and the environment in their community. You can check out more from the filmmaker Ethan Payne on his website.
“The quilts gave the women of Gee’s Bend a voice.
They give them a place in the world. They took them places that we had never been. I think places we had never even dreamed about going.”
– Louisiana Pettway Bendolph, 4th generation quilter
Since that first 2002 exhibition, the lives of the quiltmakers have been irrevocably changed. Their art has been recognized around the world and now, the tradition carries on through the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective.
The quilts represent more than just interesting folk art, though. These quilts are a product of the hands that made them. They represent the rich history of the Gee’s Bend community that began in the era of slavery in America and played a part in the history of the Depression and the civil rights movement. The quilters are part of Gee’s Bend’s long and rich history, and now their stories and quilts are traveling around the world.
In 2006 and 2007 the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies commissioned four Gee’s Bend quilters to create prints from their quilt patterns to hang in 50 United States embassies around the globe. Here’s a beautiful piece from FAPE about the history of quiltmaking in Gee’s Bend featuring images of many of the quilts that have now been seen by hundreds of thousands of people.
The Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies is a remarkable organization that works to bring the work of American artists to embassies around the globe. You can read more about their partnership with some of the quilters of Gee’s Bend on their website.
The Gifts Our Ancestors Leave Behind
We often forget to celebrate the beauty of our own cultural heritage. We take for granted the carvings our grandfather made, the way our grandma knitted us scarves, the foods that grace our tables during important holidays, or the music of our region. The story of the Gee’s Bend quilters is a beautiful reminder for us to stop and appreciate those little wonders.
We are never more connected to our ancestors than when we celebrate our culture through the knowledge they have passed down.
Now, we are so fortunate to be able to share and celebrate the beauty of our individual cultures. They are the gift the generations that came before us left behind. How will we work to preserve, celebrate, and carry on those legacies?
You can explore a few other beautiful examples of preserving tradition by jumping into this circle.
Preserving the Cultural Heritage of Rapa Nui
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If you would like to dive a little deeper and hear a little more from the Gee’s Bend quilters, I’ll leave this final, short documentary here for you to watch.
It’s a beautiful bookend to the first video in this article. It’s a richer look at the way music, community, and loving hands keep the quilting traditions alive. Take a watch of this short film from The New York Times.
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
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- AIR Serenbe, and Ethan Payne. “GEE’S BEND | Louisiana Pettway Bendolph | FILMER 2018.” YouTube, AIR Serenbe, 25 Nov. 2018, youtu.be/l3GBIgDWSD8. Accessed 8 Nov. 2019. ↩
- fapeglobal. “Quilters of Gee’s Bend Alabama.” YouTube, 4 Sept. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUO7GGoH5hc. Accessed 8 Nov. 2019. ↩
- The New York Times. “How a Group of Women in This Small Alabama Town Perfected the Art of Quilting | Op-Docs.” YouTube, 18 Nov. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHEqYVzSs7U. Accessed 8 Nov. 2019. ↩