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Architecture of the quilt

â€"Gee’s Bend” quilts are as fascinating as the quilters

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“Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt” at Tacoma Art Museum may prove to be the most exciting show this museum has ever had. The show features 51 quilts from the famous Gee’s Bend quilters — all women, all descended from a single slave, and all residents of Gee’s Bend, Ala.,  a tiny town almost completely isolated from the rest of the state by its location in the bend of the Alabama River.

The history behind these amazing quilts is as fascinating as the quilts are remarkable. Written records are scarce, but as far as can be ascertained, it all began with Dinah Miller, an African slave who was brought to America on the slave ship the Clotilde, which unloaded its human cargo in Mobile Bay in 1859. A year later, Miller was sold for 10 cents to Mark H. Pettway. If she had been a dog, she would have been the runt of the litter. Nobody wanted her because she was so tiny and weak, which was why she was the last slave to be sold and why she went so cheaply.

Today, the Gee’s Bend area is populated with hundreds, if not thousands, of descendants from little Dinah Miller. Most of them are named Miller or Pettway (the Pettways taking the master’s name) with a few Bendolphs and Bennetts. And nearly all of them are quilters. None are formally trained. They learned their craft and their art from their parents and their parents’ parents. The forms and colors of their quilts are passed down from African and Southern folk traditions and are inspired by the houses and barns and road signs of their rural homes.

For generations these quilters were unknown outside of their native environs, but they were introduced to the wider world via an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2002. At first, mainstream art critics scoffed at the show. Quilts were not considered worthy of fine art consideration at the time, and they were dismissed as mere folk artists. But very quickly a handful of the most respected critics in America began to sing a different tune, and the rest followed suit.

Peter Plagens said the quilts were “the equals of any abstract paintings by any trained artist living in one of the world’s greatest cities.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mark Stevens said, “These strikingly beautiful quilts from an isolated Alabama town just might deserve a place among the great works of twentieth-century abstract art.”

And Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for “The New York Times,” said their works are “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

The quilts are often ragged in form with sloppy stitching and are made from found or hand-me-down materials such as old gingham, corduroy and denim — what they call “old raggedy cloth.” Most are bold and simple variations on a few traditional patterns such as “bars and string” (ladderlike bands of bold colors), “housetops” (concentric squares), “blocks and stripes” (just what the name implies), and “Bricklayer” (stacked rectangles and bars in a typically pyramidal shape).

For a brief period of time in the late 1960s, the quilters of Gee’s Bend ventured into commercial quilt making when a cooperative called the Freedom Quilting Bee was formed, and their quilts were sold in major department stores such as Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth Avenue. While bringing money to the poverty-stricken area, the commercialization of their product took away from the artistic integrity. They began to use better materials and more elaborate but standardized patterns and more uniform stitching. Fortunately, this period of commercialization didn’t last long. The younger women of Gee’s Bend today are making quilts that are just as authentically unpretentious and beautiful as those made by their great-great grandmothers.

As with most great art, it is almost impossible to pinpoint what sets these quilts apart from others. Many quilters employ similar patterns. But there is something quirky about every Gee’s Bend quilt. It might be an unexpected change in a repetitive form, or an unusual color combination, or maybe a single patch of red far off in a corner in a green and brown quilt, or the way a pattern suddenly reverses itself and positive becomes negative. These are things that can’t be taught. They are in the blood, or they are learned through osmosis throughout the generations. These women seem to have been born with an unerring sense of color and form.

The Gee’s Bend quilts relate to abstract painting more than to other quilts. They are more akin to paintings by Paul Klee and Stuart Davis and Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held.

[Tacoma Art Museum, “Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt” through Dec. 9, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., third Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., $6.50-$7.50, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.272 .4258]

Quilt connection

Special events in connection with “Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt”:

“If These Quilts Could Talk: A Community Conversation” — Visitors are invited to bring in their heirloom quilts and share their stories, Sept. 23, 2 p.m.

Members’ Opening Celebration — Four of the Gee’s Bend quilters will be special guests in the galleries. Two quilters will be available to sign exhibition catalogues exclusively for members, Sept. 29, 6 p.m., free for members and $10 for non-members.

Panel discussion with four of the quilters from Gee’s Bend: Mary Lee Bendolph, Louisiana Bendolph, Loretta Bennett, and Nettie Young, Sept. 30, 2 p.m., $5 for members and $15 for non-members.

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