The third session of Craft Forward used the theme "Identity Craft" and featured Bridget Cooks who spoke about "The Phenomenon of the Gee's Bend Quilts."
Bridget Cooks delivered the most memorable and thought-provoking lecture of Craft Forward. Her lecture flowed at a measured pace (instead of frenetic speed like too many of the other speakers) and her words were carefully chosen.
When art, craft, race, gender, class, and money intersect in one conversation, it can be a very sensitive topic.
This post will be dedicated to the issues raised by Bridget Cooks. Though Bridget Cooks spoke about issues surrounding the Gee's Bend Quilts, the issues will resonate with all artists and makers.
Above left images: Annie Mae Young and her quilt "Work-clothes quilt with center medallion of strips", denim, corduroy, synthetic blend (britches legs with pockets) 108 x 77 in. The William Arnett Collection of the Tinwood Alliance
To start with background:
Are you familiar with the Gee's Bend Quilts? The quilts were made by African American women (descendants of former slaves) living in a very rural, isolated area of southwest Alabama. Surrounded by water on three sides, this community remained isolated and poor since the Civil War. (Read the Wikipedia information for more background on Gee's Bend.)
Gee’s Bend quilting bee. Birmingham, Alabama, 2005. ImageSource.
Early in the 21st century, an exhibition of their quilts traveled around the United States showing at highly regarded venues such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Whitney Museum, New York; Corcoran Museum, Washington, D.C.; the De Young in San Francisco; and many other museums. (I saw the quilts at the Corcoran Museum in 2004.)
The strong graphics formed by using simple humble materials made the quilts unique, authentic, almost spiritual, and quite powerful. From the 1930s to 1977, these quilts were all made from fragments of clothing that still had "a little wear left in 'em."
left image: Bars and string-pieced columns, 1950's by Jessie T. Pettway, Cotton, 95 x 76 in. The William Arnett Collection of the Tinwood Alliance Photo source.
For example, work pants worn down to threadbare knees and seats would still have usable fabric under the pockets or from the back of the leg. Left image: Annie Mae Young quilt, "Work-clothes quilt with center medallion of strips", denim, corduroy, synthetic blend (britches legs with pockets) 108 x 77 in. The William Arnett Collection of the Tinwood Alliance
The quilt graphics are based on traditional quilt patterns, though the real delight of these quilts is that the women do not follow the quilt patterns perfectly. Quilter Flora More says she creates the pattern "my way, I don’t put it the way the pattern went."
These photos are very small, but in person, you can see evidence of wear in the fabrics. Keep in mind that these quilts used the material frugally. The people in Gee's Bend could not afford to buy new fabric. Above right image: Annie E. Pettway (1904-1971) "Flying Geese" variation, c.1935, cotton and wool, 86 x 71 inches Photo Source.
Traditionally quilts took small pieces of fabric left over from sewing or cut from worn-out clothing and re-purposed the fragments out of necessity. These quilts from Gee's Bend illustrate the level of poverty and resourcefulness as the fabric is very worn and faded.
Bridget Cooks said there were four separate exhibitions organized by the Tinwood Alliance, a non-profit foundation for the support of African American vernacular art founded by William Arnett. As a collector, he initially bought quilts for $5 and $10 from the people of Gee's Bend, recognizing the "artistic value" of these quilts. Left image: Mary L. Bennett (b. 1942). "Housetop" variation. c. 1965. Cotton and cotton/polyester blend. 77 X 82 in. Photo source Tinwood Media.
Tinwood Alliance remains largely responsible for the ongoing exhibitions and marketing of Gee's Bend Quilts. (Keep in mind that even a non-profit organization needs to make money to pay for its employees.)
What did I learn?
Savvy and effective marketing by Tinwood Alliance generates huge visibility for these quilts.
Quilts intended for warmth on the bed and a little decoration of the home have been turned into art. Right Image: Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935). "Housetop" variation. 1998; quilted by her daughter, Essie B. Pettway, in 2001. Cotton corduroy, twill, assorted polyesters. 72 X 76 in. Photo source Tinwood Media.
During the traveling exhibitions, the Gee's Bend Quilts were hung on the museum walls like paintings. The museum changed the perception of the quilts completely. They were re-evaluated, even applauded as Art (not craft).
The merchandising of Gee's Bend Quilts included note cards and calendars. Tinwood Alliance also produced a CD of "sacred songs of Gee’s Bend."
Even the U.S. Postal Service has made postage stamps with images of the quilts as part of the American Treasure series.
What were the thought-provoking issues raised?
Who benefits when the quilts of Gee's Bend are now emulated with motifs produced by companies such as Kathy Ireland's as a design solution for mass-produced bed covering, rugs and lamps.
There are several examples online of companies featuring merchandising using Gee's Bend Quilt designs.
There are also books such as Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt Picture Book.
There are other books about the Gee's Bend phenomenon such as Leaving Gee's Bend, by Irene Lathan. This book appears to have nothing to do with the real Gee's Bend community or the Tinwood Alliance.
For me, the most ironic examples of Gee's Bend merchandising are the "kits" to let hobbyists make their own handmade Gee's Bend Quilt. This image was found on E-bay. Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of the productions and merchandising of Gee's Bend inspired craft.
Bridget Cooks asks us to examine the loss and gain surrounding the issues of identity, craft, and art hierarchies.
What happens when these humble, yet inspiring quilts cross the boundaries of the usual art hierarchy in the museum context?
Left Image: Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935). Blocks, strips, strings, and half squares. 2005. Cotton. 84 X 81 in.
What happens when utilitarian objects are elevated to Art objects?
How should we react when the wall text in the museum advocates and promotes the idea that the women of Gee's Bend are "artists" (i.e. not quilters, craftswomen, or makers)?
Should quilters be compared to famous painters (even though the inspiration and original context are completely different)?
Bridget Cooks continues with other thought-provoking issues:
Are quilts something more than quilts when they are removed from the home? Is there something to learn when quilts become Art? Who is responsible for the reclassification?
When quilts become art, apparently they also become more valuable.
Left Image: Lucy Mingo (b. 1931). Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt. 1959. Cotton and denim. 79 X 69 in.
Why is it necessary to render them as art to make them more valuable?
The issues are both crystal clear and very complex. Calling these quilts art, instead of craft, makes them more revered. A mythology is fabricated about these women, yet the reality of their core values was and remains ignored. The museum context completely obscures the evangelical Christian values, along with the fact that most rural, black, poor women have no connection to the art hierarchy.
Right image: Lola Pettway (b. 1941). "Housetop" variation. 1970s. Corduroy. 89 X 74 in.
Linda Day Clark photo of Mary Lee Bendolph at work in her home © Linda Day Clark
Why isn't craft shown in art museums?
The other side of this phenomenon is that the quilts have provided unexpected income to the Gee's Bend community providing better housing, schools, and services.
Brigitte Cooks concludes that the quilts should be shown in their own context of cultural history and that the reclassification of art devalues that original context.
Your comments are welcome.
P.S. Nancy Hernandez's lecture about "Crafting the Politics of Identity" will be the next post.
This post was updated on February 1, 2022.