Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Quilts of Gee's Bend

With a single road leading in and out of town, Gee’s Bend is a small rural community (pop. 700) nestled into a curve of the Alabama River southwest of Selma, AL. Originally the site of cotton plantations, after the Civil War the freed slaves became tenant farmers and founded this all-black community nearly isolated from the surrounding world. During the Great Depression, the federal government stepped in by purchasing land and homes for the community, and creating an "Alabama Africa" within this sleepy hamlet.
 Gee's Bend, Alabama by Arthur Rothstein, 1937
The town’s women developed a distinctive quilting style based on traditional American and African American quilts, but with a geometric simplicity reminiscent of modern art — Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. The women have passed the tradition down through at least six generations to the present. In 2003, the living quilters of Gee’s Bend, over fifty women, founded the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. Every quilt sold by the collective is a handmade, one-of-a-kind piece signed by the individual quilter and labeled with a serial number.
Mary Lee Bendolph, born 1935.
"Housetop" variation, quilted by her daughter in 2001

In the early 1990s, a former Bend resident living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, sent some garments — double-knit leisure suits — to Gee's Bend. Mary Lee Bendolph remembers, "My sister-in-law's daughter sent those clothes down here and told me to give them away, but didn't nobody want them. That knit stuff, clothes from way back yonder, don't nobody wear no more, and the pants was all bell- bottom. We ain't that out-of-style down here. I was going to take them to the Salvation Army but didn't have no way to get there, so I just made quilts out of them."

 Polly Bennett, born 1922. 
Two-sided quilt — Blocks, 1942. 
Cotton (dress + pants fabric, curtains, mattress ticking)

 Sue Willie Seltzer, born 1922. 
"Housetop" — "Half-Log Cabin" variation, 1955.

 Sally Bennett Jones, 1944-1988. 
Center medallion of triangles with multiple borders, 1966.


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