Gee whiz

A Survey of Gee’s Bend Quilts

Quilters China Pettway, left, and Louisiana Bendolf in front of Bendolf’s quilt “Housetop Variation” at the NMA.

Quilters China Pettway, left, and Louisiana Bendolf in front of Bendolf’s quilt “Housetop Variation” at the NMA.

Gee’s Bend is a very rural and very poor community in Southern Alabama. The former cotton plantation is isolated and largely inaccessible, surrounded on three sides by water, the eponymous bend of the Alabama River. The inhabitants of the community are descended from former slaves.

A 2002 exhibition at the Houston Museum of Art revealed a stunning tradition embedded in the lives of Gee’s Bend residents: quilting. The women of Gee’s Bend, like many mothers and grandmothers, made quilts, using a variety of materials, like denim and cotton, old clothes and whatever else was available. Partially because of the cultural isolation of Gee’s Bend and partially because of how close-knit the community is, a unique style emerged, full of bright colors and bold, geometric patterns. The tradition is ancient, the compositions unique and bizarrely contemporary, and the overall effect utterly timeless.

After appearing in Houston, the exhibition traveled to the Whitney Museum in New York and became a critical and commercial success, one of the most well-attended exhibitions in the museum’s history.

“We had to do it,” says Louisiana Bendolf, of quilting. “It was like working.”

Bendolf is one of the many quilters featured in A Survey of Gee’s Bend Quilts, an exhibition now on display at the Nevada Museum of Art. She was one of three featured speakers at the opening lecture of the exhibition. The others were Matt Arnett, director of exhibitions for Tinwood Alliance, who helped curate the exhibition, and China Pettway, a quilt maker and powerful singer.

It’s a rare and memorable art lecture that erupts into uplifting gospel music, as this one did more than once.

“Every day is a blessing!” Pettway exclaimed repeatedly with the passionate cadence of a preacher.

During the lecture, Bendolf explained how she was skeptical about the artistic merits of the quilts. For her, they were practical objects, part of everyday life, not rarified artworks.

But then she saw a quilt made by her grandmother—who never left Alabama—on the museum wall in Houston, and she was suddenly impressed by the beauty of the quilt and by the beauty of the family tradition.

“There’s a lot of art around us, and who’s to say what’s art?” says Bendolf.

Bendolf says she doesn’t plan too far ahead when designing quilts but takes artistic risks. “I experiment and try different things,” she says. “It’s the same when I’m cooking.”

Ann Wolfe, the NMA curator of exhibitions and collections, describes the quilts as part of a living tradition. “This exhibition has really elevated the status of these women,” she says.

In addition to the overview at the NMA, Stremmel Gallery will feature more quilts from Gee’s Bend. And unlike the quilts at the NMA, the quilts at Stremmel Gallery will be for sale.

“This will give local residents a unique opportunity to acquire these works of fine art for their personal collections,” says Wolfe of the Stremmel Gallery portion of the exhibition, which is presented side by side with American Curios, an exhibition of works by Arizona artist John Randall Nelson. Nelson’s work balances primitivist imagery with contemporary nuance.

The NMA and Stremmel Gallery sister exhibitions present an opportunity to dive into an art form with a deep, troubled history and a beautiful family tradition. It reveals art where there was previously only life.