The third session of Craft Forward used the theme "Identity Craft" and featured Bridget Cooks who spoke about "The Phenomenon of the Gee's Bend Quilts."

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Gee1 Bridget Cooks delivered the most memorable and thought provoking lecture of Craft Forward. Her lecture flowed at a measured pace (instead of frenetic speed like too many of the other speakers) and her words were carefully chosen.

When art, craft, race, gender, class, and money intersect in one conversation, it can be a very sensitive topic.

Gees_AnnieMaeYoung_thumb Gees_NettieYoung_thumb This post will be dedicated to the issues raised by Bridget Cooks. Though Bridget Cooks spoke about issues surrounding the Gee's Bend Quilts, the issues will resonate with all artists and makers.  

Above left images: Annie Mae Young and her quilt "Work-clothes quilt with center medallion of strips", denim, corduroy, synthetic blend (britches legs with pockets) 108 x 77 in.  The William Arnett Collection of the Tinwood Alliance

To start with some background:

200px-USA_Alabama_location_map.svg Are you familiar with the Gee's Bend Quilts?  The quilts were made by African American women (descendants of former slaves) living in a very rural, isolated area of southwest Alabama. Surrounded by water on three sides, this community  remained isolated and poor since the Civil War. (Read the Wikipedia information for more background on Gee's Bend.)

Gees_bend_quilting_bee
Gee’s Bend quilting bee. Birmingham, Alabama, 2005. Image
Source.

Early in the 21st century, an exhibition of their quilts traveled around the United States showing at highly regarded venues such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Whitney Museum, New York; Corcoran Museum, Washington, D.C.; the De Young in San Francisco; and many other museums.  (I saw the quilts at the Corcoran Museum in 2004.)

Gees Bend Quilt by PettwayThe strong graphics formed by using simple humble materials made the quilts unique, authentic, almost spiritual, and quite powerful. From the 1930's to 1977, these quilts were all made from fragments of clothing that still had "a little wear left in 'em."

Above image: Bars and string-pieced columns, 1950's by Jessie T. Pettway, Cotton, 95 x 76 in. The William Arnett Collection of the Tinwood Alliance Photo source.

Gees_AnnieMaeYoung_thumbFor example, work pants worn down to thread bare knees and seat, would still have usable fabric under the pockets or from the back of the leg.  Left image:  Annie Mae Young quilt, "Work-clothes quilt with center medallion of strips", denim, corduroy, synthetic blend (britches legs with pockets) 108 x 77 in. The William Arnett Collection of the Tinwood Alliance

GeesBendquilthousetop The quilt graphics are based on traditional quilt patterns, though the real delight of these quilts is that the women do not follow the quilt patterns perfectly. Quilter Flora More says she creates the pattern "my way, I don’t put it the way the pattern went."

Gee2 These photos are very small, but in person, you can see evidence of wear in the fabrics. Keep in mind that these quilts used the material frugally. The people in Gee's Bend could not afford to buy new fabric. Above right image: Annie E. Pettway (1904-1971) "Flying Geese" variation, c.1935, cotton and wool, 86 x 71 inches Photo Source.

Traditionally quilts took small pieces of fabric left over from sewing or cut from worn out clothing and re-purposed the fragments out of necessity. These quilts from Gee's Bend illustrate the level of poverty and resourcefulness as the fabric is very worn and faded.   

MARYBennett Brigitte Cooks said there were four separate exhibitions organized by the Tinwood Alliance, a non-profit foundation for the support of African American vernacular art founded by William Arnett.  As a collector, he initially bought quilts for $5 and $10 from the people of Gee's Bend, recognizing the "artistic value" of these quilts. Left image: Mary L. Bennett (b. 1942). "Housetop" variation. c. 1965. Cotton and cotton/polyester blend. 77 X 82 in.Photo source.

Tinwood Alliance remains largely responsible for the ongoing exhibitions and marketing of Gee's Bend Quilts. (Keep in mind that even a non-profit organization needs to make money to pay for its employees.)

What did I learn? 

MARYBendolph Savvy and effective marketing by Tinwood Alliance generates huge visibility for these quilts.

Quilts intended for warmth on the bed and a little decoration of the home have been turned into art .  Right Image: Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935). "Housetop" variation. 1998; quilted by her daughter, Essie B. Pettway, in 2001. Cotton corduroy, twill, assorted polyesters. 72 X 76 in. Photo source.

LUCYPettwaydots During the traveling exhibitions, the Gee's Bend Quilts were hung on the museum walls like paintings. The museum changed the perception of the quilts completely.  They were re-evaluated, even applauded as Art (not craft).


GeesBendPrintedCulture The merchandising of Gee's Bend Quilts included note cards and calendars.  Tinwood Alliance also produced a CD of "sacred songs of Gee’s Bend." GBCD-case

Even the U.S. Postal Service has made postage stamps with images of the quilts as part of the American Treasure series. 



What were the thought provoking issues raised?

Gee's bend lamp

Who benefits when the quilts of Gee's Bend are now emulated with motifs produced by companies such as Kathy Ireland's as a design solution for mass produced bed covering, rugs and lamps.

Geesbend_kathyireland

 

 

There are several examples online  of companies featuring merchandising using Gee's Bend Quilt designs.

 GeesBend_potteryBarn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

StitchPull-cover

 

There are also books such as, Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt Picture Book.


Leaving_gees_bend_cover1

 

There are other books about the Gee's Bend phenomenon such as Leaving Gee's Bend, by Irene Lathan. This book appears to have nothing to do with the real Gee's Bend community or the Tinwood Alliance.

 

 

 

 

 

GBquiltKITEBAYSALEPICTURE

For me the most ironic examples of Gee's Bend merchandising are the "kits" to let hobbiests make their own handmade Gee's Bend Quilt. This image was found on E-bay. Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of the productions and merchandising of Gee's Bend inspired craft.

Bridget Cooks asks us to examine the loss and gain surrounding the issues of identity, craft and art hierarchies.

MaryLeeBendolhWhat happens when these humble, yet inspiring quilts cross the boundaries of the usual art hierarchy in the museum context? 
Left Image:
Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935). Blocks, strips, strings, and half squares. 2005. Cotton. 84 X 81 in.

What happens when utilitarian objects are elevated to Art objects?

How should we react when the wall text in the museum advocates and promotes the idea that the women of Gee's Bend are "artists" (i.e. not quilters, craftswomen, or makers)?

Should quilters be compared to famous painters (even though the inspiration and original context is completely different)?

Bridget Cooks continues with other thought provoking issues:

LucyMingo Are quilts something more than quilts when they are removed from the home? Is there something to learn when quilts become Art? Who is responsible for the reclassification?

When quilts become art, apparently they also become more valuable.
Left Image:
Lucy Mingo (b. 1931). Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt. 1959. Cotton and denim. 79 X 69 in.

 Why is it necessary to render them as art to make them more valuable?

 Lola PettwayThe issues are both crystal clear and very complex. Calling these quilts art, instead of craft, makes them more revered. A mythology is fabricated about these women, yet the reality of their core values was and remains ignored. The museum context completely obscures the evangelical Christian values, along with the fact that most rural, black, poor women have no connection to the art hierarchy.

Above right image: Lola Pettway (b. 1941). "Housetop" variation. 1970s. Corduroy. 89 X 74 in.

Mary Lee Bendolph quilting
Linda Day Clark photo of Mary Lee Bendolph at work in her home © Linda Day Clark

Why isn't craft shown in art museums?

The other side of this phenomenon is that the quilts have provided unexpected income to the Gee's Bend community providing better housing, schools, and services.

Brigitte Cooks concludes that the quilts should be shown in their own context of cultural history and that reclassification of art devalues that original context.
Your comments are welcome.

Harriete

P.S. Nancy Hernandez lecture about the "Crafting the Politics of Identity" will be the next post.
GameBoardidentitycraftGR
  

 

 

Views: 120

Replies to This Discussion

thank you for this post - the work itself is stunning, and the story of what has happened with Gees Bend quilts in the art world is provocative. I'm especially appreciative of the argument that redefining craft as art may be a disservice when the work is stripped of its original context.

Thank you Harriete for posting these images and for asking some "tough" questions. Your posts are always so thought provoking. Honestly, I don't know right now how to sway in this discussion and I am interested to read what you guys all think.

 

What happens when these humble, yet inspiring quilts cross the boundaries of the usual art hierarchy in the museum context?  

What happens when utilitarian objects are elevated to Art objects?

How should we react when the wall text in the museum advocates and promotes the idea that the women of Gee's Bend are "artists" (i.e. not quilters, craftswomen, or makers)? 

Should quilters be compared to famous painters (even though the inspiration and original context is completely different)?

 

I had the pleasure of seeing the Gee's Bend Quilts at the Cleveland Museum of Arts a few years back, it was a huge exhibit. They had probably 40 or more quilts in their exhibit with lots of background information given. Every quilter was mentioned by name together with a brief bio, and they showed a video about where the work originates, how and why it was done, and portrayed the women themselves too to a certain extent. They had printed a catalog for the exhibit. It was all very respectfully done. My experience is from some time back, but I seem to remember that the women were referred to as "quilters" not "artists" explicitly.

 

I cannot sew a straight line if you put a gun to my head, let alone ever finish a project like this, so I am in no way an expert on quilting technique here, but I was VERY impressed with the quilts and the way they were shown. Every quilt hung on the wall "like a painting" exactly like you said, Harriete. But what would have been the alternative? If they would have been layed out (like on a bed) it would have been harder to see the overall quilt, but the argument can be made that it might have been closer to the original thought and intention of the piece. 

 

The materials the women used consisted of old, worn-out  work clothes their husbands, brothers, uncles etc. could no longer wear. Those jeans and corduroy pants and shirts were then cut into strips or rectangular shapes and put together. The overall effect of the combination of extreme simplicity/resourcefulness in materials and the often free-flow design of the finished, pieced quilts was amazing

 

Looking forward to reading other people's thoughts.

Brigitte,

Thanks for your comment.

 I like the way your reiterated the primary issues.

IT is a very complex discussion.

 

I don't mind that the quilts are shown on the wall, (that is the way quilts are shown in quilt  shows) but, it is problematic to compare them to paintings.

They should just stand on their own a quilts.

 Harriete

 

If hung on a wall anywhere, how can it be achieved that the pieces just "stand on their own as quilts"?  I don't see the problem with the comparison to paintings. The quilts truly "look like" paintings, but certainly no one would mistake them for anything other than what they are.

We find it awfully amusing that we in craft are still having the same discussion that the Dadaists answered pretty succinctly 100 years ago. This discussion of course has nothing to do with the Gees Bend Quilts. They are simply the latest catalyst for the ongoing angstfest of craftmakerartpersons.

To our way of thinking, the real question is: what happens when a rural group of artisan's work and identity is co-opted by manufacturers for mass production? Tell us that there were licensing agreements in place, royalties paid, something?  Or is all of this an intellectual distraction from the real point: follow the money!

I am under the impression that most of the money went to the collector's non-profit Tinwood Alliance.

The main benefit to the women is that their new quilts go for prices that are significantly higher than the $5.00 or $10. that the quilts sold for in the beginning. 

There also appears to be new merchandise that is sponsored by Gee's Bend women, rather than the collector/Tinwood Alliance. You would have to know a lot about the situation to differentiate the marketing of these two groups.

Harriete

 

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