ANNE R. FABBRI
Family stories weren't always written in words. Sometimes they were drawn with a charred stick on the walls of the cave that sheltered them. Others were narrated over a cup of tea by the fireplace (this explains the skeleton in the closet overheard as a child and long feared). And some, like the quilts from Gee's Bend, Alabama, were stitched from worn scraps of work clothes and household goods.
These are the gems that took my breath away upon seeing them on the pristine walls of the Art Museum's galleries. They're irrefutable testimony to the innate desire to create something pleasing to the eye out of nothing. This is the meaning of art, not to mention the meaning of being human.
Seventy-five quilts from the 1930s to 2005 made in Gee's Bend, an isolated African American community (population: ca. 700) on a bend of the Alabama River, are on exhibition for the first time. Quilts from Gee's Bend created a sensation when they were first exhibited in 2002. All the art cognoscenti related the patterns to Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and other leaders of 20th-Century art movements. They couldn't believe that these unschooled and isolated women had created such revolutionary works. But this is what they did to make something to keep them warm on cold nights and maybe even to look good when you aired them on a beautiful day in spring.
All the village ladies put their quilts out on the fence and then walked around, chatting and eyeing their neighbors' creations. Perhaps that was the incentive to join the scraps in pleasing color combinations and shapes that echoed those that their mothers and grandmothers had created.
Flying geese and courthouse steps
The quilts can be enjoyed solely for their colors and as abstract art or studied as documents of the key patterns in the quilters' repertory: courthouse steps, flying geese and strip quilting. To those of us who've seen and lived with Amish quilts, these patterns are familiar, only with different names. Think log cabin, bear paws and crazy quilts. But what is different are the names and persona of the creators.
William Arnett, the founder of the Tinwood Alliance, a non-profit foundation for the support of African American vernacular art, first traveled to the Gee's Bend area in 1997 in search of Annie Mae Young, a quilter whose picture and quilt he had read about in Roland Freeman's book, Communion of the Spirit. This visit opened the doors, and now the Gee's Bend quilters of have found fame and fortune and, I hope, happiness. But I kept wondering.
The older, the better
The old quilts, hand-stitched from faded fabrics, are moving documents of lives lived in unity, with time to rearrange patches so they looked good in addition to serving their purpose. Most of the early quilts were destroyed by wear and repeated washings and ended up as inner linings in the newer productions or were burned during the spring cleaning, but some of those on view were accidentally preserved because they'd been stuffed under mattresses to soften a night's sleep. Although quilt making has been revived in this community, I found the newer ones"” machine-stitched of new fabrics"” much less interesting. The old ones seem to contain the spirit of the maker, the true mark of a work of art.
Twenty- four photographs by Linda Day Clark in the entrance to the exhibition document the lives of the quilters and the Gee's Bend community. Clark has been there six times since her original visit on assignment by the New York Times in 2002 and seems to know and love the place. You walk out feeling as if you have known these remarkable women"” their sorrows and their joys"” for a long time.
ANNE R. FABBRI