Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gee's Bend

Gee’s Bend was founded before the American Civil War, and it is a small, rural community southwest of Selma, Alabama. The home of cotton plantations, Gee’s Bend was primarily owned by Joseph Gee and his relative, Mark Pettway, who bought the Gee estate in 1850. 
Post-Civil War, the freed slaves took the name Pettway, became tenant farmers for the Pettway family, and founded an all-black community nearly isolated from the surrounding world. During the Great Depression, the federal government stepped in to purchase land and homes for the community, bringing strange recognition — as an "Alabama Africa" — to this remote hamlet. 

Over two centuries, the women of Gee's Bend have developed a distinctively bold and sophisticated quilting style based on traditional patchwork quilts. While each quiltmaker brings her unique personality to the community tradition, many Gee's Bend quilts are remarkable for their distinctive geometric simplicity mixed with a bold sense of flair, an innovative approach to a quintessentially American art made possible by a mix of heritages: African, Native American and European. 

The women of Gee's Bend have passed their skills and style down through at least six generations, from the 19th century to the present.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, making quilts was considered a domestic responsibility for women in Gee's Bend. As young girls, many of the women trained or apprenticed in their craft with their mothers, female relatives, or friends; other quilters, however, have been virtually self-taught. 
The women consider the process of piecing the quilt top to be highly personal. In Gee’s Bend, the top is always pieced by a quilter working alone and reflects a singular artistic vision. The subsequent process of quilting the quilt is sometimes then performed communally, among small groups of women. Women with large families often made dozens upon dozens of quilts over the course of their lives.

During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Gee's Bend enjoyed several years of national visibility. A quilting bee was formed just up the road from Gee's Bend, in Rehoboth, Alabama, that made standardized quilt patterns for department stores and later undertook piecework sewing projects for Sears and Roebuck and Co. That cooperative effort was the first opportunity for many women in the area to hold jobs and bring income into their households bringing about both economic freedom and a community transformation. 

By the 1990s, quiltmaking in Gee's Bend had diminished significantly as younger residents moved away and most of the remaining quilters entered old age.  In the late 1990s, William Arnett and his son Matt, as a part of their research of African-American quilts, visited Gee's Bend and embarked on a multiyear effort to document its quilts, history, families and stories. These efforts gradually expanded, and in 2002, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, in partnership with the Arnetts, presented an exhibition of 70 quilt masterpieces from the Bend entitled The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. 

In 2003, with assistance from the Arnetts, the living quilters of Gee's Bend founded the Gee's Bend Quilters Collective to serve as the exclusive means of selling and marketing the contemporary quilts being produced by the women of the Bend. The Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibition was later followed by a second major exhibition, "Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt," which debuted in 2006. 

Art critics worldwide have compared the quilts to the works of important artists such as Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. The New York Times called the quilts "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."

Today, the quilter’s of Gee’s Bend continue their time-honoured tradition with their quilts having a historical, cultural as well as lasting artistic value for the Bend as well as for fellow quilters.
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