The beauty of tradition and community: Gee’s Bend Quilts and Prints

Gee’s Bend Quilts displayed in the University Art Gallery. Photos by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

By Lucy Rudman
Junior Editor

On Wednesday, August 28, the University Art Gallery welcomed a new exhibit–– “Prints and Quilts from Gee’s Bend”–– which features four black Alabaman artists. Every piece in the show, which ranges from sculptures to sections of fabric, is inspired by the traditional art of quilting.

This exhibit is the “latest chapter” in a long history of quilting from the town of Gee’s Bend, which has its origins in enslaved people on Joseph Gee’s plantation, according to an email sent out by the University Gallery.

“The exhibition is not just quilts,” explained Shelley MacLaren, Director and Curator of Academic Engagement at the Gallery, “but also etchings and maquettes, and four pieces by artists who are not quilters, Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley.”

Dial and Holley represent one half of the artists on display, with Mary Lee Bendolph and Louisiana Bendolph making up the other half. All self-taught, the works in the gallery are inspired by the tradition and community of the art of quilt making.

“[The exhibit] is about recognizing quilts as art objects, as beautiful formal compositions,” MacLaren explained, “and about honoring the African-American women who made them as artists.”

Dr. Julie Jones, Gallery Director and Librarian at St. Andrew’s Sewanee and an Interim Art History Professor at the University, had the privilege of seeing the exhibit 20 years ago at Yale University, when only quilts were featured.

Jones, who took her Art History 104 classes to see the exhibits described how she wanted her students to be “in the presence of actual works of art, rather than reproductions” and explained that the exhibit, now, in contrast to the Yale exhibit, where the quilts were “simply hung” in empty air, feels more “accessible.”

“The distance,” Jones said, “between the world of quilts and the contemporary art world… is lessened.”

The pieces in this show were specifically selected by collector Matt Arnett, who has had a close personal relationship with all four artists represented since the early 2000s. MacLaren noted that the presence of the exhibition here is possible because of Playwright in Residence Elyzabeth Wilder.

“Overall it is an exhibition that speaks to the inspiration offered by the quilters and the quilts of Gee’s Bend,” MacLaren explained, “and to the connections people make with one another through the quilts. Visitors are inspired. They respond to the lived experience and time evoked by a quilt, and they connect to these objects through their own experience of quilting and their memories of mothers and grandmothers who quilted. They are deeply impressed by the resiliency and resourcefulness that is at the heart of the legacy of quilting in Gee’s Bend. They respond to the craft and history and sense of community these objects evoke, and they are struck by how remarkably beautiful and surprising a quilt design can be.”

The exhibit will be in the gallery until October 31.