Quilts of Gee’s Bend

Gillian and I went with some friends today to see the Quilt’s of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. The exhibit is leaving San Francisco soon, and we have been meaning to get there to see it for so long. I regret that we will not likely get back to see it again before it leaves. I am so glad to see these works of art receiving the acclaim and attention that they so deserve. It is interesting to see this “vernacular” folk art talked about in terms of art criticism.

On the audio tour, select pieces are introduced by a knowledgeable art critic who compares the works to more famous painters. This is followed by clips of the artists, women, all descendants of former slaves living in a remote and poor part of Alabama, talk about how they make their quilts. These narratives juxtaposed against each other is fascinating to me. These women humbly and yet proudly designed these quilts. They are all incredibly beautiful, all made with old clothes, rags, and scraps of odd materials, everything from flour sacks, worn work pants, to double knit leisure suits. Each quilt is clearly designed with heart and soul, some are indeed like abstract paintings. And yet when each woman spoke about her design she was very matter-of-fact about the simpleness of how it comes together: tearing the strips apart, sewing them together, taking them apart when it is not what she wants, and sewing it back up.

What I love about them is that as the generations go on and the tradition on quilting is passed down, each design pays homage to the designs that came before. You can see the references to the patterns of the earlier quilts, and yet each quilt is a unique expression of its designer, its own interpretation of a theme.

I also love that it is an art that was born out of poverty, necessity, frugality, and the legacy of slavery in America. These families were poor and needed these quilts to keep them warm through the winter. These families had nothing, so the women sewed together scraps and they made something useful and beautiful. Beauty and warmth in spite of hardship.

It is just funny to me to hear the language of art criticism being applied to this medium that came out of a completely unrelated context. Its an odd intersection of class, race, and art. And you can see in the newer quilts the self consciousness of the criticism, the response to the fact that the medium has been noticed by a class that wants to commodify these objects.

I’m glad these women are getting acknowledged as artists, and that these quilts are hanging in museums. They merit this kind of attention, and the artists should be compensated for the value of the work, however that is defined by the culture that wants to pay for it.

The fact is, however, that the consumption of these quilts as art objects has changed the medium and the tradition. It continues to pay homage to the quilters that came before, but the new patterns indeed reflect new influences.

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