Gee’s Bend Quilts: Piecing together history


By Charles Bonenti

Special to The Eagle

When Alabama quiltmaker Louisiana Bendolph got an offer in 2005 to turn her quilts into fine arts prints, she did not, she confided with a chuckle, even know what a print was. But she liked the idea of trying something new and was eager to visit California, where the work would be done.

For two weeks that year she and her mother-in-law, Mary Lee Bendolph, and two members of the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective in Alabama, worked at the Paulson Bott Press in Berkeley to transform their traditional craft into fine art. The outcome not only established a craft/art hybrid, but also broadened the women’s repertoire of skills and opened up new audiences for their work.

Three of the Gee’s Bend quilt prints, including ones by the Bendolphs, can be seen by appointment this month at Stoneover Farm bed & breakfast on Undermountain Road in Lenox. The inn’s owner, Suky Werman, had the prints in an exhibition there this summer in conjunction with her annual benefit party for IS183 Art School. The theme was textiles that are not what they seem to be. Most of the other artworks were returned to their owners, but Werman held on to the prints, which she is showing courtesy of Deborah Ronnen Fine Arts of Rochester, N.Y.

Gee’s Bend quilts are different from the traditional patterns of squares and triangles familiar to most people, which still are made by the majority of Berkshire quilters. They look more like abstract paintings with broad, irregular swaths of brilliant color. They date back to the 19th century, when Gee’s Bend was the site of a cotton plantation. Female slaves there pieced together strips of leftover cloth to make bedcovers. Over the years, they developed a distinctive style -- based in part on African designs -- noted for its improvisations and geometric simplicity.

More than 50 quilt makers now make up the collective, which is owned and operated by the women of Gee’s Bend. Every quilt is different, signed by the quilter and labeled with a serial number. Prices range from $1,000 to $12,000, said Bendolph.

William S. Arnett, an Atlanta-based writer and collector of work by African-American artists from the South, helped bring national attention to the Gee’s Bend quilts through a traveling exhibition that stopped at a number of museums, including New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002.

New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman at that time called them "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.

"The best of these designs," he wrote, "unusually minimalist and spare, are so eye-poppingly gorgeous that it’s hard to know how to begin to account for them. But then, good art can never be fully accounted for, just described."

Pamela Paulson of the Paulson Bott Press saw them at the Whitney and, in her partner Renee Bott’s words, was "blown away" by them.

"It got us thinking about how cool it would be to make prints that look like quilts," Bott said.

It took three years for that to happen. Uncertain how to approach the Gee’s Bend women, Paulson and Bott made their interest known to an artist friend in Atlanta in hopes he would take them to the community. Before the trip could be arranged, however, the friend met collector William Arnett’s son, Matthew, at a dinner party and broached the topic. The next day Matthew Arnett called to support the idea.

"It just fell into our laps," Bott said.

With Arnett’s cooperation, Louisiana and Mary Lee Bendolph were chosen to go to Berkeley for the project.

"It was like we were a family all working together," said Louisiana Bendolph.

Bott and Paulson set up sewing machines in the studio so the women could stich small quilt tops. These quilt tops were then laid face down on copper etching plates topped with a wax coating called "soft ground" that never gets hard.

The plate was run through an etching press that pushed the quilt fabric into the wax so its texture came in contact with the copper plate beneath. Then the quilt was peeled off, leaving its impression in the wax. The plate was immersed in an acid bath that ate into the copper, but did not affect the wax. The plate was then cleaned and inked with a squeegee that left pigment in places the copper plate had been etched by the acid, but not on the surfaces covered by wax. Then paper was laid over the inked plate and run through the press so the quilt impression was transferred to it. Different plates were used to apply different colors.

Although a professional printmaker made and printed the plates, Bott said the Bendolphs had final approval over the product.

"It was amazing to see the fabric on paper," Louisiana Bendolph said.

Most prints were run in editions of 50 or fewer and sold through Paulson Bott Press for between $2,500 and $6,000 apiece, with one-third of the earnings covering costs and the balance divided equally between the quiltmaker and the company.

For Bendolph, who learned the art of quilt making from her mother and aunt at age 12 and has been at it on and off for 30 years, the printmaking experience was more an added enjoyment than one that transformed her thinking about her craft. She still makes fabric quilts and says one of her four daughters and a grandchild have shown interest in learning as well.

Her choices of patterns and colors, she said, are less about African traditions than "what makes me happy."

For North Adams painter Sean Riley, who was already testing the idea of translating quilt patterns into paintings, and was also in the IS183 benefit exhibition at Stonover Farm last summer, the decision to cross the craft/art boundary followed an epiphany upon seeing the Gee’s Bend quilts in 2008.

"As I was getting involved in this activity of quilt deconstruction," he said in a statement on his website, "I lost my father to cancer. Very shortly after his passing my wife and I made a sojourn to Philadelphia to attend an exhibition of quilts from Gee’s Bend. It was the first time that I witnessed these masterpieces in the flesh, and it was the first time that I saw beyond the image of the quilts and actually saw the fabric itself.

"Worn clothing holds memory -- a history of emotions," he went on. "Never had this idea been so clear to me than while standing in front of and enveloped by the quilts of Gee’s Bend. On going back to my father’s house to remove his possessions it became clear to me that I needed to use his clothing to make my own quilts to remember him."

"Commemorations like Riley’s to his father are still a big reason people make quilts," said Debra Rogers-Gillig, past president of Williamstown’s Friendship Knot Quilters Guild, who teaches a winter study course in quilting to students at Williams College, where she works as a technical assistant in the biology department. The course, which attracts both male and female students, has had a waiting list each of the six years she’s taught it.

"They want to do something with their hands," she said, "Instead of writing a research paper."

Rogers-Gillig is familar with Gee’s Bend quilts, which came to the public’s attention with the museum exhibitions and a PBS special more than a decade ago, but she said interest in the Berkshires -- where, besides Williamstown, Pittsfield has its Yankee Pride Quilt Guild and Great Barrington its Berkshire Quilters Guild -- was short-lived as area quilters went back to popular traditional patterns like the Star and Log Cabin.

Some continue to experiment with different "Modern Quilt" patterns and fabrics like batiste instead of calico, she said, but most still make traditional quilts either as gifts for an important occasion like a wedding, or to express themselves or to relax or simply for the fun of it.


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