​Quilting and the Community of Gee’s Bend

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

The little town of Boykin, Alabama may not be large — according to the 2010 census, its population was only 275—but its reach is quite wide.

Also known as Gee’s Bend, Boykin is an African-American community on the Alabama River in Wilcox County, Ala. Since the 19th century, it has been home to some of the country’s most powerful traditional art.

Louisiana Bendolph, artist, quiltmaker and storyteller from Gee’s Bend, remembers well the history of quilting in that Alabama community growing up. Bendolph was 12-years-old when she made her first quilt. It was just something to do with the scraps that were leftover from making clothes, and Bendolph said nothing went to waste.

More than 45 years since making her first quilt, Bendolph will visit the Mountain with some of her work and work by fellow Gee’s Bend artists, Mary Lee Bendolph, Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley.

“Prints and Quilts from Gee’s Bend” is on display at the University Art Gallery, exhibiting selections from the Arnett collection to represent a new chapter in the long story of quilting and the community of Gee’s Bend, Ala.

The history of Gee’s Bend is long. The story begins in the 19th century with the enslaved persons on Joseph Gee’s plantation, and stretches through the Great Depression and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement all the way to 2002 with the recognition of the quilters at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Since 2002, the quilts have been exhibited at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 2004, Elyzabeth Wilder, Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence, made her first trip to Gee’s Bend. She had been commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to tell the story of the community, and in 2007, the play was debuted.

“Mary Lee, who is Louisiana’s mother-in-law, said, ‘Just write it honest.’ I wrote that down, and I taped it to my computer. That was just a constant reminder to try to tell the story with as much authenticity as I could,” Wilder said. “One of the exciting things about this particular show is it demonstrates how artists are inspired by one another. You have two generations of quilters being represented. It’s also a great conversation about how we perceive art and who we think of as artists.”

Wilder said in many fine art circles, women quilting together and laughing over stories wouldn’t be considered art, but the work of Gee’s Bend challenges our assumptions about how we define art and who it’s for.

“More and more as I’ve gotten into this project and more and more as I’ve gotten to know the women, I’ve realized that this notion of providing comfort and caregiving and women’s work, these are things that kind of get dismissed, but they are really powerful. That emotional labor and the people that do the slow quiet work, the work that seems to be discarded, the conversations that happen in those spaces are the things that start allowing for issues to be discussed and action to be taken. It is a really powerful way to bring our communities together that a lot of people kind of discard,” said Jessica Wohl, associate professor of art.

“I have found over the years that quilting is essentially like painting, but you can hold the colors and the lines in your hand. What I’m trying to do with my work is provide some kind of healing or comfort to our community in these really difficult times when we’re being pitted against each other, when there are many layers of our system that separate people who live in the same community,” Wohl said.

Wilder said Bendolph will be visiting Sewanee Elementary school next week to work with the second, third and fourth graders. The students will learn how to hand piece.

“They’re going to be studying all the aspects of the quilts, and the art teacher has been working with the students on paper quilts using the Gee’s Bend style and techniques. Some of the students are taking a trip to the gallery to see the quilts. The fourth graders are going to be doing a poetry project in response to the quilt. It is a very multifaceted approach to teaching. Even the kindergarteners and first graders will be talking about the quilt in terms of color and patterns,” Wilder said. “With the pieces they make, we’re hoping to make a quilt for the school.”

On Friday, Sept. 13, at 5 p.m., at Convocation Hall, Louisiana Bendolph, Wilder and Wohl will lead a conversation about quilting, community and the remarkable creative achievement of the women of Gee’s Bend. Earlier in the day, Bendolph will attend an on-campus sewing circle, and the community is invited to attend. On Thursday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m., in Convocation Hall, University students will perform a reading of Wilder’s play.