You are probably familiar with the Gee’s Bend Quilts – the quilts created by women from Gee’s Bend, in rural Alabama, U.S.A.. The colourful fabric works have been favourably – and appropriately – compared to works by Henri Matisse and Paul Klee.
This Smithsonian article briefly outlines the history of the quilts, and the people living in their isolated community of Gee’s Bend, also known as Boykin, Alabama. Why was I surprised to learn that the quilts are inextricably linked to slavery, and poverty?
The quilts were made out of necessity, to keep the women and their families warm in their unheated cabins. In Arlonzia Pettway‘s home, for example, electricity didn’t arrive until 1964, running water was available in 1974, and a telephone installed in 1976.
Recycled and scavenged fabrics were used for the quilts. In the excellent NYTimes video about the Gee’s Bend quilters, While I Yet Live, one of the women recalls … Sometime you walking along the highway, you see an old piece of material, you went to pick it up and run home and give it to my momma. And, you know, she put it in a quilt.
Anna Mae Young’s quilt, below, is made of used work clothes.
The idea of artwork being both beautiful and useful is worth exploring. Of course, William Morris’ quote comes to mind: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. (Beauty of Life lecture, 1880) Is it sacrilegious/naïve/cheeky to suggest that several well known abstract expressionist paintings could be easily swapped out for these quilts? One could hang the quilt on the wall and take it down when needed. Goodbye Pollack, welcome Pettway!
I am sorry to say that I didn’t know anything of these artworks until October 2017. I visited the deYoung Museum during a brief stay in San Fransisco (sigh….remember those days?!), and, as often happens, happily stumbled upon new and challenging work. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibited alongside the shows Revelations: Art from the American South and Coming Together: Artistic Traditions of the Quilt and the Print.
I had never seen a collaboration between quilters and printmakers. Quilting and printmaking? How does that work? Paulson Fontaine Press in the San Fransisco Bay Area worked with the quilters to produce limited editions of intaglio prints. Here is a very brief video from their studios, where the soft ground and aquatint etchings are produced.
The collaboration began in 2005, and continues to the present. In 2005 and 2007, (then) Paulson Press printed an edition of four of Louisiana Bendolph’s quilt designs. As recently as October 2020, they released three new editions of Gee’s Bend prints by Mary Lee Bendolph and her daughter, Essie Bendolph Pettway.
Paulson Fontaine Press exemplifies the democratic nature of printmaking. Working with the artist quilters of Gee’s Bend, they print the artworks in editions of 50. The art becomes accessible to more people. Museums are collecting, and exhibiting the works. Commercial galleries are offering the prints for sale. Paulson Fontaine Press is also contributing a portion of their sales of the latest print release to the Equal Justice Initiative.
Useful and beautiful artwork, indeed.