Untitled quilt by Loretta Bennett

How appreciable is art without context? It is certainly possible to view the quilts of Gee’s Bend currently on view at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery as modern, innovative works of art comparable to the push-pull paintings of Hans Hoffman, or Mark Rothko’s color fields, without knowing the stories behind them. However, this rather constricted view will limit your experience. During my sophomore year in college, I saw the Gee’s Bend exhibition for the first time at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. But this past First Thursday was an extra draw for me, because I knew several of the artists would be in attendance for the opening.

Throughout my life I’ve had the opportunity to meet hundreds of artists, but none quite like the lady quilters from Alabama. As someone who grew up in places that have more of a melting-pot vibe, I was looking forward to the opportunity to meet some rural African American artists. I did additional reading on their history the day before and found myself excited, and sometimes angry, recounting everything I had learned to friends and family. It seemed a perfectly natural response to become indignant at the injustice and hardship suffered by the people of Gee’s Bend, while at the same time thrilling with joy at their triumphs.

One of the most surprising discoveries I’ve had since moving to Oregon is the absence of the concept of “acknowledging each other” among black Portlanders. In places I have lived, from my hometown in South Florida, to college in Baltimore, and summers spent in New York and Providence, there has always been an unspoken code that when you come into contact with another black person in a situation when you are one of few, you acknowledge them, whether it be as simple as a hello or a nod. This stems from a shared history we little forget, from slavery to civil rights and, long before that, to our collective African ancestry. You see the face, and you know, you remember. You nod and say hello, an informal sign of respect.

So when I stepped into Elizabeth Leach Gallery with my sister, I had a feeling we wouldn’t be leaving without meeting some of the artists. Sure enough, the ladies laughed at us when we offered handshakes and instead gave us warm, sisterly hugs, simultaneously calling to mind Southern hospitality and an unspoken understanding of black identity.

Gee’s Bend is an isolated area formed by a dramatic turn in the Alabama River. It used to be accessible only by ferry, but was shut down when the black people of Bend (Benders) began using it to cross the river for the scandalous purpose of registering to vote and joining Martin Luther King Jr. on marches. There was a time when the kids of Gee’s Bend were bused a hundred miles a day to “integrate” schools that soon became segregated again due to white flight. For such a remote region, the history of Gee’s Bend is remarkably turbulent.

During the Depression, it was among the poorest areas in the country (as documented in photos by Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Wolcott in the 1930s). All available resources—harvested cotton, provisions, and livestock—were taken to collect on debt, leaving the inhabitants to survive on food gathered from the wild, with some limited help from the Red Cross.

Generations before this, residents were stripped of their individual histories by slavery. Gee’s Bend blacks were lumped together and most were given the name Pettway, a plantation master’s name that many of the quilters and residents share to this day. Even their town, whose current population is about 700, was renamed Boykin after white Alabama Congressman Frank Boykin. Despite the dehumanization of slavery, an inherited tradition remained alive and vibrant on this small patch of land, and the women continue to pass down the styles and standards of beauty that originated in Africa. As part of a community where people were constantly trying to make ends meet, ingenuity was expected. The women recycled materials because they had no other choice. They used what was available, improvised with what they had, and still managed to turn out visually striking, utilitarian pieces for their children and grandchildren. Historically, few of the women made quilts solely for pleasure, yet there is still an exuberant joy and genius in the arrangement of color and line.

Materials used were a visual record of time and toil, and were often symbolic, from salvaged denim field clothes worn while picking cotton, to old church dresses, pieces of corduroy, and even scraps of sacks. In the 1940s, Missouri Pettway made a quilt from her dead husband’s clothes to wrap herself in on cold nights. America Irby mingled beautiful scraps of dashiki fabric into quilts in the early 1970s. Irene Williams incorporated the word "VOTE" throughout a quilt in 1975.

In some cases, there are examples of work from four generations of women within the same family. After the Civil War, the former slaves stayed on the land to work as sharecroppers. Quilts were a necessity in houses made of planks spaced so far apart that you could see the stars dappling the night sky through the walls. The rich sense of community within Gee’s Bend was created not only by the town’s isolated geographical position, but also by a shared history that began with slavery, through freedom (and what that meant or didn’t mean) with its attendant hunger and poverty, through the civil rights movement, and now, through all of this recognition. The quilters’ traveling exhibitions showcase decades of textile art that was formerly folded under beds or sprawled over mattresses and not even regarded as art. Thankfully, these shows provide a means to preserve a tradition that is in danger of being lost as the younger generations have fallen prey to the distractions of modern life and have lost interest in piecing quilts.

Two of the artists I met, Lucy Mingo and Louisiana Bendolph, have quilts on display at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Mingo’s Housetop Blocks is a dynamic color study of the tension between turquoise and bright magenta. In her work, there is an apparent making and breaking of rules. There is acknowledgment of and a deviation from symmetry. Predictability is altered. Bendolph, who is younger than the other artists, displays the influence of the long family tradition through new media in a series of soft-ground and aquatint etchings that display a refined celebration of subtlety. Shared Legacy combines red, black, and the natural color of linen with visible overlaps, as though we are given a glimpse of sorts into the construction of a quilt.

Experiencing this exhibition should give rise to questions about all the other unrecognized and underappreciated artists in various pockets of this country. Where else might we find deep-rooted artistic traditions? Who else has been overlooked?

Right before I left, the quilters broke into song, belting out "Give Me My Flowers (While I Yet Live)", a song that, while not overtly religious, carries the spiritual weight of gospel music. The lyrics ("I don’t want nobody to praise me when I’m gone. Give me my flowers while I yet live") speak to the heart of an artist’s struggle to be recognized in life. When you meet these women, see their work, hear their songs, you can see the struggle behind it all. It’s right there in the stained and faded patches of clothing and in the richness of their voices. I, for one, came away with a sense that through their unyielding faith they have prevailed despite it all. And the quilts are a guiding light within a dark history.

Quilts from Gee’s Bend
Elizabeth Leach Gallery
Jul 2–Aug 1
Tue–Sat 10:30–5:30. 417 NW Ninth Ave. 503-224-0521