The Quilts of Gee's Bend, an exhibit of 70 quilts made in a small, impoverished town in Alabama during the last century, stirred up a lot of attention when it debuted at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in November.
It was a timely showing for such an exhibit, considering that quilts have become one of the most popular must-haves in home d¯r collections. Men's fashion designer Ron Chereskin, pajama maker Karen Neuburger, and entertainment house Disney all entered the category last fall.But the quilts from the Gee's Bend exhibit, emotionally and historically assembled by hand by 46 women, starkly contrast with the straight lines, bright colors, and perfect angles found in classic Euro-American-style quilts.Instead, the materials stitched together by the ladies, most of whom are descendants of slaves, consist of worn workwear, corduroy, denim, cotton sheets, and handkerchiefs. Some art critics liken the quilt designs to modernist abstract paintings, others liken them to patterns found in West African textiles, such as Kente cloths.A panel of four Alabaman quilters spoke to a gathering of quilting groupies at the Whitney during the opening, and each Gee's Bend representative said she creates her designs fairly spontaneously, or as in the words of Mary Lee Bendolph (born 1935, the second eldest of the panelists), "We don't never go by no pattern."The four women, so honored, proud, and calling themselves "blessed" to see their quilts hanging in a museum in New York City, would be more than mildly stunned to know how well their merchandise has been moving at the museum gift shop. The exhibition catalog, "The Quilts of Gee's Bend," published by Tinwood Books, $45, is the swiftest mover, according to Steve Buettner, speaking on behalf of the museum's bookstore. Other mementos available include greeting cards (which had sold out but were on re-order as of press time), magnets, a 20-minute videotape documentary on the quilters, and a music CD of the women singing as they stitch.Alvia Wardlaw, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (where the exhibit originated), and co-curator of the exhibit, says there are plans to expand the documentary to 60 minutes and to run it nationally.
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