Somewhere Else Things Are Changing

26th February 2021

Chloe Austin

In that heady summer when the apocalypse seemed to have temporarily receded, I talked my family into a weekend at the seaside. While I sold them on the white cliffs of Botany Bay, I knew my ulterior motive: We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South had opened at the Turner Contemporary in Margate and I was determined not to miss it. Among the range of mediums, subjects and techniques on display were a selection of quilts, most of which were made in a small town on a bend of the Alabama River, called Boykin but more commonly known as Gee’s Bend.[1] Mainly women, the Gee’s Bend quilters are tied by the familial and communal bonds of the African American hamlet where quilting skills have been passed down and innovated upon for generations.

The literature on We Will Walk describes the objects on display as “works developed outside of the mainstream”.[2] Though this may be true of the quilts’ creation, since then they have been somewhat subsumed by – and influential within – the world of art. I am drawn to compare them to the Abstract Expressionists and Colour Field Painters because temporally and aesthetically they sometimes collide. Though, in terms of geography, Gee’s Bend is all Alabama River while high abstraction is the Hudson. They may meet in public collections but their paths there could not be more divergent. Equally, although it is tempting to consider contemporary artists who use fabric as a medium – like Sanford Biggers and Eric N. Mack – as belonging to the lineage of the quilters, this younger generation have a self-awareness of themselves as artists which brings a level of autonomy within the art world that has been notably absent for the quilters.[3]

From far away, quilts in white cube spaces look right at home, but on closer inspection, they are a little lost. Their stains remind us of their past lives as other people’s blankets. Quilter Mary Margaret Pettway chuckled as she told Maria Margaronis, “Now quilts are very very very versatile. My mother [Lucy T. Pettway] has a quilt at the Met. I used to sleep under that quilt and they were laughing at me because I said, oh I used to sleep under that thing right there you know, but that was my quilt it was on my bed. I couldn’t believe it. Why in the world would they want that thing?”.[4] This disbelief at the institutional recognition of the quilts is echoed by Loretta Pettway Bennett, who described the quilts on show in The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (2002)at the Museum of Fine Art Houston as “ugly quilts,” and said that many of their makers only started to see their work as art after that exhibition.[5]

Lucy T. Pettway, “Housetop” And “Bricklayer” Blocks With Bars, c. 1955

I feel conflicted. The urge to reinsert the quilters into Art History is strong but never has Art History’s approval felt more irrelevant. Being exalted as an artist never seemed to be a wish for some of the quilters. The importance of being named an artist is perhaps overemphasized by those adjacent to it: critics, curators and art historians. In fact, making parallels between quilting and high art can feel less like the deconstruction of hierarchy and more like its enforcement – why isn’t being named a quilter enough? Why is the vernacular seen as less?

While reviewing a show of the quilts, Michael Kimmelman said that the “ethos that permits us to appreciate the work of modernist painters also lets us recognize the virtues of Gee’s Bend quilts, which another era might not have seen. Esthetics are contextual”.[6] Our eye is not our own. However, the Gee’s Bend quilters had a vision all of their own, tucked away in rural Alabama, how likely were they to know about the work of modernist painters? Could it be that the same shifts in life and art which forged the innovations of mainstream modernism were also felt by the quilters of Gee’s Bend? Change happened in the center, yes, but it happened elsewhere too. Gee’s Bend felt the Depression, suffered voter suppression, marched for Civil Rights and was visited by Martin Luther King Jr. Things changed slowly.[7]

The Souls Grown Deep Foundation[8] have a collection of biographies written by the quilters, and those who knew them. Ella Mae Irby’s begins: “Wasn’t no happy stuff back then. Didn’t have nothing to be happy with. Mama, if we got ever to a flour biscuit she’d take one biscuit and break it in four piece. Didn’t have much. Come up hard”.[9] Very rarely does anyone mention the words art or artist, though there are evocative, detailed descriptions of the process of making; repeated in many stories are tales of hardworking matriarchs and the struggle to keep warm. When asked what quilting meant to Gee’s Bend, Bennett replied: “Well now pretty much nothing. But before quilting meant that you probably kept pretty warm at night. Them old houses, they didn’t have any insulation … wind come through the panes of the windows”.[10] The necessity of making warmth out of scraps led to the aesthetics of the quilts, no time for dainty “pretty quilts,” what Pettway Bennett refers to as “ugly quilts” were useful, warm and bold in their abstraction.

Patty Ann Williams, “Monkey Wrench”—Single-Block Variation, c. 1955

Inversely to this is Eric N. Mack’s effortlessly delicate Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag—Permanently, 2019. A combination of sheer fabrics, pastels, bold fuchsias and graphic patterns, the work is an installation which uses the devices of a quilt. Despite the differences in materials and contexts, comparing Mack’s Proposition with the Gee’s Bend quilts reveals a shared understanding of the language of fabric. The geometric elegance of the swathes of fabric in Proposition, calls to mind quilts like Patty Ann Williams, “Monkey Wrench”—Single-Block Variation, c. 1955. The more heavily assembled areas make use of found patterned fabrics – almost like ready-mades – to bring an element of the world into the piece, much like Irene Williams, “Housetop” Variation, c. 1975, also known as the Vote Quilt where strips of red, white and blue fabric printed with the word ‘vote’ form the framework of the pattern.

Irene Williams, “Housetop” Variation, c. 1975

Proposition was shown at the Whitney Biennial in 2019. Could a work like this have a place in the Whitney without the Gee’s Bend quilts as a precursor? Much like modernism prepared the eye for the quilts, the quilts prepared the art world for a new generation of artists playing with the boundaries of art, craft and life. The luxurious nature of the materials in Mack’s works foregrounds the economic shifts in America, where an African American middle class is burgeoning. The washing line-like installation of the piece reflects the imagery in the title, a wet Gee’s Bend quilt might well be out to dry: a display for everyone in the community to see – the laundress as the pride of the country. Equally, the weight of a wet quilt on a flagpole might force it to fly half mast, always mourning someone. Considering America’s history, and present, and that of Gee’s Bend, it feels appropriate.

Eric N. Mack, Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag – Permanently, 2019

Illustrations

Eric N. Mack, Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag – Permanently, 2019, Installation, Vintage acetate, silk, polyester scarves, handkerchief, chiffon, organza, Liberty printed cotton, Missoni knit, Brocade, dyed lace, cotton, Belgian linen, tyvek, thread, pins and rope, 194 × 272 in. (492.8 × 690.9 cm). © Eric N. Mack. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee.

Lucy T. Pettway, “Housetop” And “Bricklayer” Blocks With Bars, c. 1955, Quilt, Cotton, corduroy, cotton knit, flannel, even weave, 90 x 78 in. © Lucy T. Pettway. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Patty Ann Williams, “Monkey Wrench”—Single-Block Variation, c. 1955, Quilt, Cotton, 81 x 81 in. © Patty Ann Williams. Museum of Fine Arts Boston museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Irene Williams, “Housetop” Variation, c. 1975, Quilt, Cotton, 89 x 78 in. © Irene Williams. Museum of Fine Arts Boston museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio


Sources:

[1] “We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South,”Turner Contemporary, accessed February 7, 2021, https://turnercontemporary.org/whats-on/we-will-walk/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Although organisations such as the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Nest are working with the quilters to generate income for themselves and build their position within institutions. https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/; https://www.buildanest.org/geesbend/.

[4] Maria Margaronis, “The Documentary: Stitching Souls,” released August 15, 2020 byBBC World Service, podcast, 3:50, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct0x2h.

[5] “Loretta Pettway Bennett & Mary Margaret Pettway in conversation with Raina Lampkins-Fielder,” Recorded January 19, 2021 by Alison Jacques Gallery, talk, 36:38, https://www.alisonjacquesgallery.com/exhibitions/192/video/

[6] Michael Kimmelman, “ART REVIEW; Jazzy Geometry, Cool Quilters,” New York Times, November 29, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/29/arts/art-review-jazzy-geometry-cool-quilters.html

[7] Clyde Haberman, “Martin Luther King’s Call for Voting Rights Inspired Isolated Hamlet,” New York Times, March 8, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/us/gees-bend-alabama-martin-luther-king-voting-rights-1965.html

[8] The Souls Grown Deep Foundation preserve and promote the work of African American artists from the South.

[9] “Ella Mae Irby,” Souls Grown Deep, accessed February 7, 2021https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/ella-mae-irby.

[10] Maria Margaronis, “The Documentary: Stitching Souls,” released August 15, 2020 byBBC World Service, podcast, 3:26, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct0x2h.

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