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Tag: quilts

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.

From tar beach to star-flying

The Artdog Image of Interest

Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach (Part I from the Woman on a Bridge series), 1988.

Faith Ringgold’s story quilt Tar Beach (Part 1 from the Woman on a Bridge series)1988, rewards some time spent looking at it closely. The quilt has enough going on in it to provide several of the illustrations for Ringgold’s 1991 children’s book, also titled Tar Beach

The book Tar Beach is a semi-autobiographical account of a little girl, Cassie Louise Lightfoot, in Harlem, New York in the 1930s (not coincidentally, Faith grew up there during the 1930s).

At night in the summer, Cassie sleeps on the “tar beach” of her apartment building’s rooftop, and dreams that she owns everything she can see. Her prized possession is the George Washington Bridge, and in the story the stars lift her up so she can fly over it. Here is a video from NPR, of Faith reading the book.

The other story quilts in the Woman on a Bridge series (that I could find) are Double Dutch on the Golden Gate Bridge: Woman on a Bridge #2, 1988; Painting the Bay Bridge: Woman on a Bridge #3, 1988; and The Winner: Woman on a Bridge #4, 1988.

Tar Beach, the most famous of the series, is in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Here’s a glimpse of the size of the quilt and more about its background.

Faith enrolled in the City College of New York in 1950, planning to study art–but women could only enroll in certain majors at the time, so she studied art education. She taught in public schools until 1973, when she turned to creating artwork full-time. Listening to her read, however, I’m not sure her inner teacher went away. More likely that’s the part of her who wrote and illustrated 17 children’s books.

I also thought it was fascinating (because I’m fascinated by cultural exchanges) that she picked up the idea to put a fabric border around her paintings from a Thangka exhibition she viewed in the Netherlands.

IMAGES: Many, many thanks to Gathering Books, for an image of Tar Beach that was big enough to allow us to some of the richly-worthwhile view smaller details in the quilt, and to NPR on YouTube, for the video of Faith reading her book.

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