My heart is so full of love right now, you wouldn't be able to comprehend it. I just got back from previewing the Atlanta showing of the Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibition. I've written about Gee's Bend before...I've gotten to experience a few of the quilts at museums and galleries, but nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming experience of seeing them in person. For the uninitiated, Gee's Bend is a rural African-American community where a tradition of highly improvisational utilitarian quilting has existed for generations. The exhibition features 45 artists, and spans most of the 20th Century. Quilts are divided into several thematic categories. Upon entering the gallery, you come face to face with quilts made from work clothing--jeans, work shirts, and other fabrics display the wear and tear associated with years of everyday use. They are stained with the red Alabama dirt, oil, and sometimes blood.
My favorite quilt from this section utilized a section of striped mattress ticking, which also appeared to be well-used. The second section is devoted to "roof-top" quilts, a certain pattern that the Gee's Bend quilters favored. Far from a rigid pattern, the quilters explored every conceivable variation on the form. Most striking is a section called "My Way", which contains the most improvisational "no holds barred" quilts in the exhibition. "My Way" is the term used by the quilters to describe the pieces that come from their own individual styles. The Gee's Bend quilters used whatever scrap fabrics were at hand, generally preferring to use them in long strips, fitting them together like a puzzle as they went along, rather than laying out rigid patterns.
Color combinations and fabric choices are stunning. The accompanying exhibition text and audio guide are both very thoughtful, pointing out formal considerations and bits of color theory that come into play on the quilts, but never in a heavy-handed way. One of my favorite quilts from the 70's or early 80's was made almost entirely of gray sweatpants material, and accented by a pink fabric. It was jarring to see the combinations of denim, corduroy, upholstery, formalwear, prints, and even polyester combined in the same quilts. Most of the quilts have seen considerable utilitarian use, and look it.
The final group of quilts use corduroy that was cast-off when the Gee's Bend quilters contracted with Montgomery Ward to make handmade quilts. The spare bits of corduroy are considerably more lush than most of the fabrics in the exhibition, but are combined in stunning ways, overcoming the traditional palette of 60's and 70's colors. I simply can't recommend this exhibition enough. It makes me run out of "extreme" hyperbole to describe it. Looking at these quilts in a book will never compare to coming face-to-face with the embodiment of such an overwhelming display of tradition and D.I.Y. creativity. You have until June 18th to visit Atlanta and experience it for yourself.