By Arwen O’Reilly
I saw this exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York two years ago, and I am fervently grateful that I got the chance to see it again. The show is of approximately 60 quilts from Gee’s Bend, a community in rural Alabama that was isolated for decades because of its placement in a narrow crook of a river. The women of Gee’s Bend dealt with their extreme poverty by creating joyously beautiful quilts out of the scraps of their lives, often using their husbands’ worn-out jeans, overstock from a nearby corduroy factory, or snippets of extra fabric from old clothes. The designs are amazingly modern; there are a few that are traditional quilting patterns, but most are loopy, bizarre, gorgeous combinations of colors and shapes, some starkly simple, others a wild confusion. The isolation of Gee’s Bend allowed the women to create a totally unique style of quilting that was passed down through four generations.
The show is a total inspiration to make use of every last scrap (as one woman says in the DVD that accompanies the show, “we didn’t throw out anything”), and a reminder that breath-taking beauty can come out of stuff we wouldn’t ordinarily look twice at. It also makes a strong case for following your own vision; most of the quilts look amazingly like modernist paintings considering they were made 30-80 years ago in the middle of nowhere.
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend is up until December 31st, but go now because you’ll probably want to go again (and make sure to go up the museum’s tower at least half an hour before closing for fantastic views of the city). A few of the women are actually coming to speak on September 23rd, and will be singing with the Glide Gospel Choir on the 24th! Link.