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Tag: Amy Sherald

Influences: the quilts and quilters of Gee’s Bend

I remember when my sister, the quilter in the family, first showed me pictures of several quilts from Gee’s Bend at some point in the mid-2000s. They were strikingly beautiful, and unlike anything I’d seen before. Lots of other people thought so, too, when they were first exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002.

Many people were astounded and delighted when they got their first looks at the now-famous Gee’s Bend quilts. In 2006 they were featured on United States postage stamps.

Like many people, I was fascinated by the dynamic asymmetry of these designs, such a different approach to the formal balance found in most traditional quilt patterns.

If you’ve grown up with quilts as I have, the first thing that leaps to mind when someone says “patchwork quilt” is the formal balance of traditional patterns such as the Six-Pointed Star Medallion Quilt (2017) from Catbird Quilts at left, or the Hoedown grid quilt by Codysnana, from The Spruce Crafts at right.

We artists and art lovers seek and create bridges to meaning by linking what we know to things we have not previously seen. Thus, I understand the comparisons to the work of Color Field artists such as Barnett Newmanor artists associated with Geometric Abstraction, such as Frank Stella or Josef Albers, by art critics commenting on the earliest shows. They had few other points of reference in their universe (not being conversant with West African textiles, apparently).

They could’ve Googled it: this screen grab shows the results of a Google Image Search for “West African Textiles.”

Of course, an argument can be and has been made that, particularly in the white-male-dominated world of the New York art scene in the early “uh-ohs” (well pre-#MeToo) there were more than a few people flabbergasted that impoverished, isolated black women could actually come up with such stunning and masterful designs, all by themselves.

Well, suck it up, guys. White men didn’t invent ALL the good things after all. (Truth be told, there are those who will point out that they actually didn’t even invent as many of those good things as they claim . . . but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).

Bottom line: the women of Gee’s Bend are the real deal, even if they didn’t go to art school or study “the masters.” But it’s also true that they didn’t get into the Whitney, and thereby onto the world stage, all by themselves.

They got there through the efforts of a white man from Atlanta, named William “Bill” Arnett, and as with all help from white men, the longer one looks at his work and treatment of the outsider artists he discovered, the more questions arise. There are those who intimate or outright claim exploitation. Certainly, the licensing of those images for postage stamps didn’t filter back to Gee’s Bendfor one example among many.

Bill Arnett, of course, has his own version of events. And you certainly can’t say he didn’t have a nose for talent. Not only did he discover and share the Gee’s Bend quilts with the world, but lightning struck at least twice. He’s also the man who discovered Thornton Dial and mentored him into world-class artist scene. Arnett continues to champion the cause of African art, with his Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

No matter who paid for what, licensed what, or what settlements were reached in the aftermath, one thing we must say is that, whatever their influences, the quilters of Gee’s Bend have become influential in their own right. They only came to the attention of the world in 2002, so we still don’t even yet know how or what or where their influence will go, but already they’ve become established deep in the aesthetic consciousness of contemporary African American art. Younger African American artists know Gee’s Bend is a place where their roots run deep.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018, the official portrait of the former First Lady, by Amy Sherald.
At left, the “Runway version” of the Milly dress by Michelle Smith; at right, a variety of Gee’s Bend quilt designs.

For one example, a younger Amy Sheraldwhose work I profiled last spring, and who was recently chosen to create the official portrait of Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery, attended that 2002 Whitney show. Sherald says part of the reason she chose to use the Michelle Smith-designed Milly dress for the portrait was the way it reminded her of the Gee’s Bend quilts.

I predict that the echoes of influence aren’t finished reverberating through generations (and artworks) to come.

IMAGES: Many thanks to The Textile Research Centre of Leiden, for the montage of Gee’s Bend quilt postage stamp designs; to Catbird Quilts, via Pinterest, for the gorgeous Six-Pointed Star Medallion Quilt, and to The Spruce Crafts by Codysnana, via Pinterest, for the photo of the very striking Hoedown pattern grid quilt. The screen grab of West African Textile Patterns is from a Google Image Search. I want to thank the New York Times for the almost-15-minute video “While I Yet Live,” which includes comments from the quilters about their history, and lots of images of their wonderful quilts. Finally, I am indebted to Decor Arts Now, for the photo of the Michelle Obama portrait, the Milly dress, and several suggestive quilt patterns. I also want to thank Decor Arts for the photos of the Michelle Obama portrait, as well as the photos regarding the “influence elements” of the Milly dress and a collection of representative Gee’s Bend quilt designs.

Everything

The Artdog Image of Interest 

Amy Sherald’s Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) speaks to me on so many levels it’s hard to know where I should begin. From her vibrant red hat slipping down over her eyes, to the awkward mismatch of her two-sided dress, to Those Gloves and That Enormous Cupthis young woman is loaded down by expectations that others have piled onto her.

There have been times when I’ve been that young woman. I suspect there are times when most of us have been that young woman. Certainly this painting speaks to me of all the myriad expectations that confront women. We are supposed to be poised (even when we’re not), stylish (even when our style is not “in”), to steadily support that massive cupful of expectations, and make it look easy (even when we’re struggling).

I first met Miss Everything face-to-face when The Outwin came to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City recently. Once one has met her, she’s hard to forget.

PLEASE NOTE: Amy Sherald and Michelle Obama recently unveiled Sherald’s painting, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, the official presidential portrait of the former First Lady, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, USA. I particularly enjoyed a New Yorker article about the work, written by Doreen St. Félix. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it, too.

ALSO: For those who live in the region I do, you may want to note that a solo show of her work will open at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis on May 11, 2018. It is set to run through August 19.

IMAGE: Many thanks to the “Gallery Gurls” interview with Amy Sherald, by Imani Higginson, for the photo of Miss Everything. 

Improvisation on a classic

The Artdog Image(s) of Interest

Kehinde WileyOfficer of the Hussars, 2007Collection of the Detroit Institute of the Arts Museum

Today I get to feature one of my absolute favorite pieces by Kehinde Wiley, an artist I’ve been aware of, and admired increasingly, ever since I ran across one of his amazing portraits several years ago at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. That painting was part of a traveling exhibition, I didn’t retain the name in my memory, and I haven’t been able to scare up information about it online.

But periodically I’d run across another Wiley–and, as you can imagine (if this is your first Wiley, God bless you, now you know!), once you’ve seen Wiley’s work you don’t forget it. Recently, the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art acquired another Wiley, his painting St. Adrian

Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars is based on another painting I’ve known and loved for years, The Charging Chasseur, or An Officer of the Imperial Horse Guards Charging1812, by Théodore GéricaultYou may remember seeing a reproduction of the artwork (the Wiley, not the Géricault), if you’ve watched the Fox TV Show Empire.

I’m a Géricault  fan, too, not only for his dramatic compositions and masterful renderings, but because he liked exotic places and people who didn’t all look just like him. At his best, he portrayed many of those “exotic” people as individuals.

do tend to think Wiley improved on the original–but you can compare, and decide for yourself.

The Charging Chasseur1812, by Théodore Géricault – Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

You’ll see more Kehinde Wiley art from me in the months to come, if all goes well. He’s got so many wonderful paintings to share!

NOTE: While researching this post, I also discovered that former President Barack Obama shares my enthusiasm for Wiley’s artwork: he recently chose Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait. It will hang in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, alongside an Amy Sherald portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Deadline Detroit and Alan Stamm, for the photo of Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars, and to Wikipedia for the photo of Géricault‘s painting.

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