Thursday, July 13, 2006

Gee's Bend (say: Jeeze Bend) quilt story from Times

Here is an article from the Seattle Times about Gee’s Bend quilts that are currently on display at the Greg Kucera until September 2.

Tacoma Art Museum will be doing an exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts in the fall of 2007.



Heide Fernandez-Llamazares

Assistant Museum Educator and Docent Coordinator



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Piecing together past and future

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The official title of the quilt Loretta Pettway, 64, made from her sons' jeans is "Housetop, 2004." But she calls it, "The hog in the pen."


"My mama was the one who taught me to quilt when I was 12 years old," says Mary Lee Bendolph, 70. She calls this quilt "H." Her silk scarf is patterned from one of her own designs.


Louisiana Bendolph, 45, calls this etching: "Triangles (after Annie E. Pettway)," in honor of her great-grandmother. The women's quilts are on exhibit at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle. The quilts are available for purchase, ranging from $12,000 to $22,000. Related etchings are priced from $1,500 to $4,500.


Two generations of Gee's Bend, Ala., quilters, from left to right: Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Lee Bendolph and her third cousin, Loretta Pettway. The Bendolphs are mother- and daughter-in-law.

The women of Gee's Bend, Ala., have been quilting for three and four generations. Piecing together swatches from available material: cornmeal sacks, leisure suits, denim coveralls. Hand-stitching ebullient designs passed down from mother to daughter.

And while their handiwork triggered a certain pride in the women themselves, a just-completed national museum exhibition of Gee's Bend quilts has triggered a nation's reverence for their work.

"Imagine Matisse and Klee arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South," wrote Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times when the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted a show in 2002.

That show, which originated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, introduced the public to tiny, rural, isolated Gee's Bend, a community of some 700 people first settled by the freed slaves of Joseph Gee and Mark Pettway.

The women quilters of Gee's Bend were immediately vaulted from craftspeople to fine artists, lauded as unique practitioners of black vernacular art. Miles Davises, if you will, with thimble and thread. Gee's Bend quilts, dictated art critic after art critic, so deserved to be seen.

Now there's a local opportunity to do so. Ten quilts, and a collection of 12 quilt-derived etchings, presently hang on the walls of Seattle's Greg Kucera Gallery.

"These quilts are to traditional patchwork quilts as jazz is to classical music," says Kucera, a quilt collector who traces his appreciation for such textiles to when he was a child in Gold Bar. He slept underneath a family quilt, pink and blue satin cradling his chin.

Now showing

Gee's Bend Quilt Makers: Quilts & Related Prints, now through Sept. 2, Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Ave. S., Seattle (206-624-0770 or

Two Gee's Bend quilts are also on display through July 30 at the Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue (425-519-0770 or

The Whitney show of Gee's Bend quilts remains one of the best things the gallery owner has ever seen. "Powerful art," Kucera recalls.

Indeed, even as an image on a printed page, a Gee's Bend quilt invites awe and introspection. The lines are strong. The colors bold. The patterns course like the imposing Alabama River, an abstraction of color in its wake.

Even without the backstory that is Gee's Bend, these quilts command respect. But why not hear the story about the women and their work from the artists themselves?

Praying and improvising

"My mama was the one who taught me to quilt when I was 12 years old," Mary Lee Bendolph, 70, says while sitting in the gallery last week. She and two other women had just arrived from Alabama to briefly accompany the show.

"Every summer she'd quilt. You sit down and piece and you be talking to the Lord. You tell the Lord about the hard times and soon, tears be coming and you'd stop and read the Bible and you sing songs."

Bendolph's quilt is a patchwork of corduroy that forms the letter H: brown-wine, taupe with strips of a not-so-creamy white. She loved the white but it got messed up as she was washing the fabric and someone telephoned her, distracting her in the process.

She laughs at the memory. "I thought it would be alright on my bed."

Her quilt cascades off the right wall as you enter the gallery. "Now someone's telling me one [of her quilts] might be made into a postage stamp. I just can't describe how blessed we are."

Sons' jeans reborn

Quilting was, foremost, something utilitarian, Loretta Pettway, 64, explains. "Back in the day we had no heat in the bedroom," she says. "So all these quilts were to keep me and my kids warm."

If a quilt is a self-portrait then Pettway's quilt should read "Mama." Hers is constructed from the worn jeans of her sons: Walter Jr., Nathaniel, Wayne, Ezell and Percy.

"I took the best parts of their jeans. They was too good to throw away. I washed them out in a pot with lye soap and that faded them."

She beat and cleaned the cotton she used for batting. She quilted until the wee hours of the morning: by the fire in the winters; outdoors in her yard in the summers.

Pettway's quilt, a procession of denim bands with a black corduroy rectangle in its middle, is officially titled "Housetop, 2004." But ask her what she calls it and she replies: "The hog in the pen."

The new generation

Louisiana Bendolph moved out of Gee's Bend to Theodore, Ala., when she was 20. She became a mother and a wife, and after having made several quilts to have at hand, she had pretty much stopped.

But then she saw the Houston show and took in the sight of her great-grandmother's quilts suspended from the big white museum walls.

"People from all over the world suddenly knew Annie E. Pettway. It was very touching. She had never been any place and now something she had done was being shown all over." The experience changed her.

Bendolph, 45, represents the newest generation of Gee's Bend quilter. She and Mary Lee Bendolph, her mother-in-law, created small quilts and, using a softground technique, have produced a collection of aquatint etchings. Look closely and you can see a jean pocket here and the fine ridges of corduroy there.

Bookending the quilts and etchings is a collection of contemporary work clearly influenced by American patchwork. The show includes a comic book bedcover by Mark Newport and a blanket fashioned of clothing labels by Nole Giulini. Each work is flanked by one of Kucera's own quilts, allowing visitors to decide on their own whether there truly is a difference between art and craft.

To anyone unfamiliar with Gee's Bend quilts, consider the Greg Kucera show a kindly, inviting primer. (A pair of Gee's Bend quilts also currently hang at the Bellevue Arts Museum through the end of this month.) The Tacoma Art Museum is scheduled to showcase some 70 Gee's Bend masterpieces, part of a second museum show touring the country, in September 2007.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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