RESOURCES

Reinventing Gees Bend Quilts in the Name of Art

by Sally Anne Duncan

[This article, a version of which was presented at the College Art Association, Atlanta,Georgia, February, 2005 and an earlier version which was reproduced in Museum Anthropology, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2005), is reprinted here in full by permission of George Duncan. Sally Anne Duncan died in 2007.]

Introduction


Rarely have African American household quilts been accorded more than passing recognition in the art world. Nor, for that matter, has the medium of quilting itself. This makes all the more surprising the enthusiastic reception art museums throughout the country have accorded the household quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. They are dually acknowledged, both for their visual power and for their unique origins in one of the most marginal of American communities, at once black, poor, female, and Southern. The sparkling authenticity of those hardscrabble quilts, their rich social history, and the dignity and sincerity of the quiltmakers themselves (whom one meets at the exhibition openings) are undeniably compelling.

Despite the lip service given to the “blurring of the lines” separating high and low art in art museums today, it is still extraordinarily difficult for even the finest of vernacular or “self-taught” art to gain a permanent place in them. Quilts have been generally categorized not even as folk art but as craft, much beloved but rarely taken seriously by art historians and curators, and rarely seen worthy of exhibition or collection—and that applies to quilts made to highest standards of hand sewing and design.¹

The Gee’s Bend quilts, judged strictly from a craftsmanship perspective, are unlikely to be accepted in most juried quilt exhibits today. The Gee’s Bend quilts are as outrageously bold and colorful as they are daringly uneven and abstract. Most appear to have been hastily assembled and coarsely quilted with large uneven stitches. They contain worn recycled fabrics, denim pants, work shirts, and headscarves, for example, and have been likened to the found-object assemblages that grace many backyards throughout the South.² Everything that makes them “unquilt-like” in an orthodox sense is what astonishes and makes a deep impression on those who have seen them. In fact, when they were on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Crafts magazine described the quilts thus:


Although hung like paintings, many of the quilts are magnificently lopsided, their lower edges a diagonal curve. Even when nearly square, the gallery spotlights produced soft folding shadows beneath them, reaffirming their textile identity. These are quilts that refuse to conform—both to strictures of the white cube, and to the traditions of the (Euro-)American patchwork, with its regular patterns and uniform pieced shapes. Instead what distinguishes the piece strip and patchwork quilts of Gee’s Bend are large unruly geometric shapes, unusual juxtapositions of cloth—cotton or corduroy against synthetics and wools—and colourful asymmetric patterns, which are both bold and edgy.³


Their freedom and variety are, in part, how they came to hang on gallery walls. But that is not the whole story. The other part of their sudden and stunning success was the result of a careful orchestration of the quilts, their origins, and the quiltmakers themselves. An intervention into art museum culture has re-formed these unusual coverlets through the language and frameworks of high art.

As Southern folk art, it would have been sufficient to place the Gee’s Bend quilts in contexts of gender, domesticity, craft, and the material culture from which they came. They could have been displayed, perhaps, in one of the various folk art, textile, or quilt museums around the country. Instead, their mediators have successfully transformed them into painting surrogates, deserving of wall space in America’s high art museums. More to the point, by associating the Gee’s Bend quilts with the abstract and minimalist compositions of twentieth-century paintings, as parallel creations (not merely derivative or inspirational), the catalogue and the promoters betray a larger agenda: to end the long-standing exclusion of vernacular and self-taught artists from the art museum’s permanent displays. In the past, such exhibitions as Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984) and Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art (1992) have made it seem that the works of indigenous artists and communities are only worthy to be in the art museum to the degree that they have been appropriated by the mainstream.⁴

The Exhibitions


I will examine several aspects of the exhibition process by which the Gee’s Bend quilts, deservedly admired, have been transformed into high art objects and how the show’s promoters have sought to remove the barriers between folk and high art, art and craft. This major shift in identity has been accomplished largely through the quilts’ association with the modernist agendas of artistic genius, a time-honored system of cultural elevation; an engagement with their isolated rural geography and cultural history; and an emphasis on the individual creators as artists, women indeed bent on individuality of mind and method. William Arnett, the Gee’s Bend quilters’ patron and primary collector, likes to proclaim that “Alabama is America’s answer to Tuscany,” referring, perhaps, to the concentration of artists who transformed a period or in this case a nation’s view.⁵

Discovery myths abound, not only in the history of Western art but most especially in the world of Southern vernacular artists. The “discovery” that brought the Gee’s Bend quilts and their makers to the citadels of high art began with a photograph. Arnett, whose last fifteen years had been devoted to unearthing and promoting African American self-taught artists, came across this photograph in Roland Freeman’s 1996 book A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and their Stories. The photograph showed two quilts proudly displayed on a winter woodpile behind quiltmaker Annie Mae Young and her great-granddaughter Shaquetta.⁶ Young lived in the small community of Rehoboth, Alabama, down the road from the area known as Gee’s Bend (officially named Boykin).

Arnett knew that the isolated communities of central Alabama were fertile incubators of indigenous artists, having collected the work of Lonnie Holley and Thornton Dial both of whom came from that region. So in 1997, he made his way to Gee’s Bend. What he found there was a group of quiltmakers whose extraordinary output spanned four generations. Many still lived in homes that had been built during the Depression by the Resettlement Administration to replace the unheated loosely boarded “shotgun” shacks so prevalent among Southern sharecroppers.⁷ The women of Gee’s Bend made coverlets primarily to keep their families warm. Working within the continuities of the Gee’s Bend quilting traditions, they created a unique group of textiles, vivid and distinct in color and design, through which they expressed their visual imaginations and their individuality.

Within a year, Arnett had acquired over 500 Gee’s Bend quilts at modest prices which he turned over to his family’s nonprofit foundation, Tinwood Alliance, with the intent of conserving them and ultimately exhibiting them.⁸ He and his sons, Matthew and Paul, sent images of the quilts to a select group of art and quilt experts to verify the uniqueness of their find.

Advocacy and scholarship were essential ingredients in launching these quilts on their journey to becoming high art objects. The Arnetts turned to John Beardsley and Jane Livingston, whose exhibition and catalogue, Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, had broken new ground for African American vernacular artists twenty years before.⁹ With considerable financial support from actress and activist Jane Fonda, plans were made for a major publication and for an art museum exhibition. Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, offered to organize the show and be the first venue. Shortly thereafter, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York signed on. Alvia Wardlaw, curator of modern and contemporary art in Houston, with numerous exhibitions and catalogues of African American art to her credit, contributed to the Gee’s Bend publication and organized the exhibit along with the Arnetts. Matt Arnett and Vanessa Vadim, Fonda’s daughter, produced an evocative video about the quilters that is an integral part of the exhibition.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend opened in Houston in September of 2002 and traveled to New York in November of that year. While the show was well received in Houston, at the Whitney it became a blockbuster with crowds lining up on Madison Avenue to attend. New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman’s review helped to assure the show’s success with accolades such as, “the most ebullient exhibition of the New York art season.”¹⁰ Within days of its enthusiastic New York opening, museums throughout the country were calling Arnett asking to host the exhibit. An additional nine venues were quickly arranged.¹¹ By the time the exhibit closed in New York in March of 2003 over 200,000 people had seen it.

To their promoters’ surprise, the Whitney’s exhibition strategy emphasized the formal and visual qualities of the quilts. The quilts were widely spaced with a minimum of context and were not accompanied by pictures of the quiltmakers as were found at other venues. The reduction of social historical markers on the gallery walls, although amply provided in a film adjoining the exhibit and the exhibition catalogue, sparked far more curiosity and interest among the sophisticated New York audience than might have occurred if the rooms had been densely layered with contextual material. The Whitney curators went out of their way to treat these quilts as they would a group show of abstract paintings with the names of the artists listed at the entrance, and the quilts left to “speak for themselves.”¹² It turned out, however, that at the opening ceremonies, the quiltmakers who attended spontaneously broke out into gospel singing in the galleries in front of their quilts. This was captured on network television for all to see and greatly enhanced the resonance and attraction of the exhibition.

For the Arnetts, the exhibition’s placement in art museums was just as important as its enthusiastic reception. They knew first hand that the art museum—and the art market—were primary forms of cultural validation essential to support the Gee’s Bend quilts as art: that notion of art as a privileged realm of meaning, one that expresses the dominant taste and values of society.¹³ For the Gee’s Bend quilts to be “relegated” to textile museums and galleries, folk art collections and institutions, or historic and contemporary quilt shows would have been to abandon them to the “authority of the margin” and to rob them of their aesthetic agency. At best, they might have been featured in Raw Vision as classics of outsider art, not, as they were, in Art in America as modern art masterpieces.¹⁴ In folk venues, they would be seen and soon forgotten by small and specialized audiences.

Despite the contributions of anthropologists, folklorists, ethnographers, and non art scholars to the critical study of art worlds, art exhibitions, and aesthetics, little has altered the ideologies and practices of art museums. The art museum remains a space of power, privilege, and “distinction,” one that enhances the aesthetic, cultural, and commodity value of objects immeasurably and in a way no other kind of exhibition space is able to do. One only has to look at two exhibits produced in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. At the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Rings: Five Passions in World Art, an exhibit of 129 objects from around the globe drew hundreds of thousands of visitors. John Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery in Washington organized the exhibit, based on the Olympic logo, around the five “universal” emotions—love, anguish, awe, triumph, and joy. Aside from its kitschy theme, the exhibition had everything going for it—the city’s premier high art venue, iconic master works such as Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss and Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the authoritative voice of a renowned museum leader accompanying visitors around the galleries. It was also widely advertised, sold timed tickets for limited admission, and had a glossy catalogue and CD-ROM for sale in the many Olympic gifts venues.

Across town, in Atlanta’s City Hall East, an alternative space, it was another matter. There, art historian Robert Hobbs organized Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, a profoundly evocative and important exhibition of African-American Southern self-taught artists as a joint project of the Michael C. Carlos Museum and the Cultural Olympiad. The exhibit contained five hundred objects made by twenty-nine artists from the Deep South all of whom represented the particular cultural richness of the region. Most of the works came from the collection of William Arnett, who was closely involved in its development. Souls Grown Deep was everything Rings: Five Passions of World Art was not—rooted in local culture, self-reflective and self-revealing, and steeped in the politics and history of a post-slavery and postcolonial South.¹⁵ The multivocality, cultural embeddedness, and historical complexity of Souls Grown Deep, while deeply appreciated by scholars and admirers of self-taught artists, drew a tiny fraction of the attendance of Rings and were largely ignored by the press.¹⁶ Souls Grown Deep made it to no further venues and would have been forgotten were it not for two monumental and richly illustrated catalogues by the same title published in 2000 and 2001.¹⁷

Significance


Will the Gee’s Bend quilts represent a sustained intervention into the relationship between Southern self-taught art and the high art establishment? This ambition underlies the Arnetts’ and their associates’ agendas. According to curator and historian Alvia Wardlaw, the Gee’s Bend quilts offered an opportunity to investigate the rich culture of African American experience and to “expand the definition of contemporary art.”¹⁸ As one critic put it, “It is rare to find an exhibition that throws something totally unexpected our way, that forces us to carve out a meaningful chunk of historical space to make room for a new body of work.”¹⁹

It is this dynamic on a rhetorical, aesthetic, and institutional level that makes the Gee’s Bend quilts significant beyond the particulars of their origins and aesthetics. Can quilts from a small community in Alabama meet such lofty aspirations? It will take their continuing presence in the art museum, not a temporary exhibition and its initial reception, to answer that question—as their promoters are well aware.

This is not the first time that quilts have taken the art world by storm or have been viewed through the modernist aesthetics of the contemporary art world. In July 1971, The Whitney Museum mounted the first show of American pieced quilts in a contemporary art museum, entitled Abstract Design in American Quilts. Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof selected quilts from their collection that they considered “painterly” and of high aesthetic merit.²⁰ A flattering review of the show by none other than conservative art critic Hilton Kramer pointed out the obvious parallels between quilts and modern painting, thus elevating the quilts to a new context.²¹ Another critic at the time declared, “the elegant Whitney Museum of Art . . . . has given the homely quilt its artistic stamp of approval.”²² The quilters’ publication, Quilters Newsletter Magazine, also proudly observed that “many of the quilts look like paintings.”²³

This exhibit, as well, drew crowds through the summer and was extended for an additional month. Before it closed, requests had come in to exhibit the quilts at several U.S. and European museums. The Holstein/van der Hoof collection traveled for the next four years to American museums, both independently and as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service program (SITES). It also visited Japan, France, and England. As a result of the Whitney experience, Holstein hoped to enhance the place of quilts in American culture as well, and there were some victories. Beside alerting the art world to quilts, the exhibition stimulated the market for antique quilts, inspired a new generation of quiltmakers, established quilts as a significant, separate folk art form, began an era of quilt scholarship, and introduced American artists to the medium of quiltmaking.²⁴

The “discovery” of Amish quilts of Pennsylvania also advanced the quilt to art object in public consciousness, to the degree that the quilts were seen as “assuming the status of cult objects by the mid 1970s.”²⁵ The Esprit Clothing Company assembled a collection of Amish quilts that traveled extensively around the United States and, when not traveling or in corporate headquarters, was placed on deposit at the San Diego Museum. In 1990, Robert Hughes wrote an introduction to the quilt collection for a lush coffee table book, entitled Amish: The Art of the Quilt. In it he argues for the quilts’ status as art objects due to their abstraction and modernity and notes “how absurd the once jealously guarded hierarchical distinctions between ‘folk’ and ‘high’ art can be.”²⁶ These Amish quilts were widely admired for their disciplined, structured, and serene designs and for their detailed and exquisite craftsmanship, the antithesis of the Gee’s Bend quilt aesthetic.

From this surge of interest in the quilt as art and artifact, one would have expected art museums to reexamine their collections and to foreground quilts in their displays. With the exception of the art quilts of such notable figures as Faith Ringgold, however, quilts have remained quaint intruders in a larger art discourse with an occasional entrance at best through temporary exhibitions. This will not be the fate of the Gee’s Bend quilts, if the Arnetts and their collaborators have their way.

Arthur Danto points out that although words such as “masterpiece,” “quality,” and “genius” are considered suspect today when applied to contemporary art, they are applied liberally to the work of self-taught artists outside the mainstream, as legitimating tools.²⁷ The Arnetts and others associated with this exhibition are no exception. While acknowledging the possibilities of finding within the Gee’s Bend quilts African antecedents and slave narratives of political dissent (two current scholarly approaches to African American quiltmaking), the Gee’s Bend [quilts] promoters intend to lift them out of these vernacular traditions and, through stylistic and social historical means, elevate them to the status of high art.

The full understanding of African American vernacular arts, represented not exclusively but extremely well by Gee’s Bend’s elegant quilts, requires far more than the appeal of poignant stories and distant ancestors. These cultural treasures stand on their own merits side by side with the world’s great art.²⁸

 

 

Three Strategies to Validatation


Three directions were taken to validate this claim in both the exhibition and the discourse around it: first, an emphasis on the quilts’ formally sophisticated design; second, a focus on the community’s sociocultural history; and third, an exploration of the unique identities and contributions of individual quiltmakers as creative artists.

1. Emphasize sophisticated design


Much of the process of making artifacts into art involves talking, writing, and putting works into textual classification systems.²⁹ Few are better suited to do so for the Gee’s Bend quilts than William Arnett and his sons. Their intense engagement (along with that of their scholarly associates) was and is essential to the process of bringing these quilts to art museum contexts. The Arnetts “cut their teeth” on the other African American self-taught artists they have championed. They had, after all, sponsored not one but two exhibitions held in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics: Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, and Thornton Dial: Remembering the Road. These exhibits had showcased works from the Arnetts’ private collection and established their status as collectors and interpreters of African American vernacular art. The acquisition of more than five hundred Gee’s Bend quilts, an entire body of work spanning four generations from a single community, provided them with a trove of new material to work from and a powerful opportunity for involvement in the mainstream museum world.

The Arnetts make persuasive arguments for the aesthetic qualifications of the Gee’s Bend quilts. They describe a parallel art world that is Southern, black, and excluded from the high art dialogue—one that they feel should be seen as going hand in hand with the geometric experiments of Cézanne, Picasso, and Mondrian, akin to the collage and assemblages of modernist Kurt Schwitters or the vernacular master Thornton Dial, sharing the reductive universe of minimalist Donald Judd, and retaining an African American preference for asymmetry, syncopation, and dissonance akin to Romare Bearden. While mainstream modernism took its course, the Arnetts explain, “somewhere else - out in the black Southern diaspora and most remarkably in Gee’s Bend - geometric form and a collagelike process also became a tool of artistic discourse.”³⁰ The Gee’s Bend quilts are, in their estimation, the tip of the iceberg of Southern vernacular art, most of which has been excluded from the mainstream through neglect or outright bigotry. The Arnetts want to persuade us that the enthusiastic reception of these quilts in art museum venues signals nothing less than the rewriting of the art historical canon. Or, as their media website tells us, they want to “bring to light an American civilization few know. We specialize in the unveiling of unique and original visual art forms. Our work has been called “so profound it’s subversive” (www.tinwoodmedia.com). “We all knew,” Arnett asserts, “that in the American South are some of the greatest [works of] art in American history, produced by black people far out of the mainstream. The miracle is that people now are admitting it.”³¹

Some in the art establishment had also pulled out all the stops to provide an aesthetic context for the Gee’s Bend quilts that supports their inclusion in museums of art. As art historian Jane Livingston rightly surmised “to a certain audience, [the Gee’s Bend quilts] may reverberate with the rhythms and patterns of other twentieth-century art, whether the German Bauhaus-inspired work of Joseph Albers or Paul Klee, some of Barnett Newman’s compositions, or more contemporary painters such as Sean Scully.”³²

The formal language of abstraction and of abstract expressionism is frequently evoked in homage to these quilts. One critic hailed them as “examples of the finest American modern art…their abstract geometries and bold syncopated colors . . . likened to paintings by Matisse and Klee.”³³ Another assures us that “[the Gee’s Bend quilts] resonate harmonically with many strands of geometrically-based and materially innovative postwar American abstraction, as well as with that abstraction’s European antecedents.”³⁴ In a description that could fit any number of modern abstract painters, Annie Mae Young, one of the most innovative of the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers, is depicted as an “artist,” who has “a certain character of fearlessness, of the most audacious experimentation together with an utterly confident grasp of her compositions and her uninhibited technique, [marking her] as one of the great masters of American Art.” ³⁵

There are also numerous analogies made between the visual qualities of the Gee’s Bend quilt designs and minimalism. “A painterly, minimalist approach to textiles,” described one critic.³⁶ “The best of these designs, unusually minimalist and spare” wrote Kimmelman of the New York Times.³⁷ “Minimalist miracles of harmonious tones and bold lines,” said a third.³⁸ And from a fourth, “The show is one of the finest examples of juxtaposition and reductive images that you can find . . . alluding to the spare minimalist imagery found in the quilts.” ³⁹ It is a timely coincidence, perhaps, that the exhibition of the Gee’s Bend quilts and minimalist retrospectives are occurring simultaneously: in fact minimalism is de rigueur and art museums and art magazines alike are currently celebrating this historical phenomenon.⁴⁰ The Gee’s Bend quilt exhibition was the runner up for the prestigious International Association of Art Critics award for the best thematic show, losing only to the inaugural exhibition of Dia:Beacon. This new museum in Hudson, New York is a citadel of minimalism and conceptual art.
[Ed note: Dia:Beacon (Riggio Galleries) is located on the Hudson River in Beacon, New York.]

2. Put the art in context


Bold comparisons with high modern art are just one of the strategies employed to give these quilts staying power. As with many contemporary exhibits that showcase art from the margins, a second strategy has been an intensive effort to situate these quilts within the context of their isolated locale, their cultural history focusing on race and gender, and the dire circumstances under which many of the quilts came into being. So dense was the supporting material that surrounded this exhibition at several venues that one visitor remarked that there were in fact two exhibitions—one aesthetic and visual, the other textual, auditory, and social-historical.⁴¹

At one venue, the entrance featured a montage of changing photographs projected on a wall covered with old newspapers alluding to the desperate survival technique of keeping out the cold that Gee’s Benders employed in years past. Maps, a chronology, and the background strains of gospel singing so central to the Gee’s Benders community life also defined the liminal space of the entrance. The exhibit followed the themes of the catalogue (its authors acting as curators in absentia): themes such as “Work Clothes” (commonly used material); “My Way” (personalized expression); “Annie Mae Young” (an individual case study); “Housetop” (a core compositional form); “Family” (a family of quiltmakers); “Patterns” (attitudes toward conventional patterns); and “Sear’s Corduroy” (the interaction of tradition and historical change).⁴² Most of the quilts had generous labels that in some cases included photographs of each of the quiltmakers, as well as in one gallery an actual bed from Gee’s Bend piled high with quilts, and in another a quilting frame with a quilt in progress. A gallery was devoted to the video produced by Matt Arnett and Vanessa Vadim of the quiltmakers and their community.⁴³ Set in the quiltmakers’ homes and yards and told through the women’s voices, the video gives a glimpse of the living history of the Gee’s Bend community. It is resonant with historic photography, music, and intimate close-ups of the elderly quiltmakers as they described their lives and work. The video proved so captivating to visitors that one could hear a pin drop in the gallery where it was being shown. In addition, a separate room of archival photography (organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art) depicted Gee’s Bend in the Great Depression and constituted an exhibit all by itself.

The catalogue, the wall text, the labels, the photographs, and the hauntingly evocative video locate the quilts within the historical context of African and African American experience. They describe how, generation after generation, women in the isolated and impoverished community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, forged individual and collective identities in the process of making quilts to keep their families warm. Their isolation was penetrated but not transformed by New Deal initiatives and the Civil Rights movement and efforts to organize themselves in the 1960s into a self-sustaining cottage industry, the Freedom Quilting Bee.⁴⁴

These elements pale in comparison, however, with the presence of the quiltmakers themselves at openings and events associated with each exhibition venue. The Arnetts insist upon their participation and have persuaded the museums to include them in their opening festivities. Indeed, their presence lends a poignancy and resonance to the quilts themselves that is inestimably powerful—they are in many ways as unforgettable as their creations.⁴⁵ The Gee’s Bend women’s graciousness, humility, and longevity (two are close to being ninety) add immeasurably to the reception of their work. As many as forty Gee’s Benders have been brought by the Arnetts to Houston, New York, Washington, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and elsewhere.

William Arnett is the quilters’ best advocate. He takes pride in introducing them individually to large audiences. He accompanies his introductions with a ready supply of stories about each and every quiltmaker and quilt in the exhibition. He has no qualms in urging visitors to “meet the artists” and buy the catalogue (a portion of its profits is to be returned to the Gee’s Bend community). The women patiently sign the exhibition catalogues and shake the hands of visitors who stand in lines to greet them. On several occasions, the women have been pressed into singing the gospel songs for which they are also deservedly famous.⁴⁶

The socio-economic distress that underpins the quilts’ creation can be barely imagined. Gee’s Bend is part of rural Wilcox County, Alabama, a county that remains one of the poorest areas in the nation: more than one third of the county’s residents live below the poverty line.⁴⁷ Set apart in its isolated location, Gee’s Bend—literally a bend in the Alabama River—became a community of landowners in 1946 when residents were given loans to purchase farm lands that they had previously leased from the government.⁴⁸ Its people have a long-held reputation for independence and self-reliance and for community cohesiveness. Like their neighbors, however, Gee’s Benders have had their share of grinding economic hardship.

Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes describes her experience in 1967 as a field staff worker for the Southern Rural Research Project (a SNCC-affiliated legal rights project) in which she helped to survey almost a thousand black farm households in the eight so-called “Blackbelt” counties of southwest Alabama where Gee’s Bend is situated. Scheper-Hughes recalls vividly:


We found a ravaged population living for parts of the year on the edge of starvation and largely dependent on capricious federal farm programmes—families who survived during the lean winter and early spring months on a diet of starch, sugar, and fat—grits, biscuits, cornbread, peanut butter, fried bologna, fatback, Kool-Aid and coffee. Were it not for seasonal mustard and collard greens, field peas, and hunted meat—squirrels and possums—it would be hard to imagine how so many of them managed to stay alive at all . . . . After hunger, the greatest cause of suffering was the cold, wet winters that were accompanied by chronic respiratory infections, colds and flu for which the sharecroppers had no access to medicine except at the outpatient clinics at the county hospitals, which were still segregated and which treated healthcare as a privilege rather than a right.⁴⁹


As Michael Prokopow points out, in giving the art museum the power to transform humble household coverlets into art, the exhibition process cannot help but view through rose-tinted glasses the historical, social, and cultural forces that produced these artifacts.⁵⁰ In the case of Gee’s Bend this is illustrated and enhanced by the spare and elegiac Farm Security Administration photographs by Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Wolcott that accompany the exhibit. These artfully arranged Depression era images illuminate the poverty of Gee’s Benders’ lives and their subsequent improvement after federal intervention.

Houston museum director Peter Marzio said he felt he was in the presence of “genius” after viewing the quilts for the first time. What better way to acknowledge the quiltmakers’ stature as artists.⁵¹ Carol Ducey, curator, International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, on the other hand, argues instead that “poverty pure and simple” may have been the driving force behind the so-called free spirited creativity attributed to the Gee’s Bend quilters and other African American artisans working in isolated enclaves.⁵² Economically disenfranchised and time-pinched black women’s labor has resulted in extraordinary coverlets, but their make-do materials and serendipitous combinations may come from an ingenuity born of necessity as much as artistry. As John Beardsley reminds us,


There is no call to sentimentalize these people, their lives or their creations; this is not some American pastoral . . . . When Gee’s Bend quilts are joined to the narratives of the people who made them and used them . . . they speak instead of the formidable privations of rural life for African Americans in the Deep South, which is amply illustrated in the historical record and is still evident, to some degree, in Gee’s Bend today. There is a dark underside to these beautiful quilts: they represent a desperate effort to keep warm with scraps; they are made of the very stuff African Americans were enslaved to produce, grown out of the ground they were forced to clear and work.⁵³


The quilters’ advocates must concern themselves with how this sort of “genius,” so embedded in a culture of poverty and racism, and so intriguing to audiences as a cultural anomaly, will make a lasting place for itself.

3. Show the quiltmakers as individual creative artists


The third strategy employed to make the quilts into art is to acknowledge the unique identities and contributions of individual quiltmakers as creative artists.

For these humble coverlets to become art with staying power, the quilters must be seen as “artists”—individual artists and not a folk collective. A few brave critics have openly balked at this designation—notably Thelma Golden, former Whitney curator and current deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Golden described the exhibit as “the most culturally repugnant, retrograde moment I have experienced, perhaps in my entire professional life.”⁵⁴ While Golden’s remarks were to be taken with a grain of salt because of her own troubled career at the Whitney Museum, they engendered an eloquent response from the quiltmakers themselves. Speaking on behalf of fifty-four quilters, Rennie Young Miller replied that
"The ‘Quilts of Gee’s Bend’ exhibition project has transformed our community. It has brought hope and renewal to dozens of African-American women artists here. We have been treated with dignity and respect for the first time in our lives. Thanks to the exhibition, we now have a stake in our future as artists."⁵⁵

Most important about this reply was the confident assumption on part of the quiltmakers that they were indeed artists and that their quilts belonged in the world of high art.

The Arnetts and their associates have long insisted on “artist” as the preferred term to describe these Gee’s Bend women, making statements to the effect that:


All of these artists must at times have regarded their quiltmaking labors as a difficult and arduous responsibility, and even at times, as an unwelcome necessity…[but] the incredible internal drive to keep producing quilts can only be explained as a deep aesthetic impulse, for above all, the quilts are statements of identity and individuality, as well as objects of utility and tradition [emphasis mine]. ⁵⁶


Words such as “deep aesthetic impulse,” “individuality,” and “independence” help to distinguish these quiltmakers from others, putting them in the same arena with modern artists who have followed the tradition of non-threatening rebelliousness long associated with the avant-garde.⁵⁷ “You just had to find a way to do it yourself,” quiltmaker Gearldine Westbrook, is quoted as saying, “When you sit down, you got to get yourself a mind of your own, figure out a way to put them together.”⁵⁸

“If the goal is Art-world success and endurance,” cultural anthropologist Grey Gundaker suggests, “works . . . must shed the skin of lesser classifications and assume the full raiment of Art per se.”⁵⁹ Thus, “information about the artist or omission of it is part of the social production of art as a commodity.”⁶⁰ There is a plethora of anecdotal biography offered on each and every quiltmaker both in the catalogue and in the wall texts and video. Their identities are shaped for us through the stories that have been gleaned from oral histories taken over the last eight years and by the descriptions of others about them.

No group of people initially appeared more disinclined to call themselves artists or consider their pieced bed coverings art than these elderly quiltmakers—this trait they share with many other self-taught artists whose “discovery” has led them to adopt new identities and new attitudes about their works, often reluctantly. Ironically, the quiltmakers’ unvarnished description of their house quilts as “ugly, raggly things” lends a seeming “authenticity” to their creations making even more dramatic their ascent to the status of high art “masterpieces.”⁶¹

According to the Arnetts, one purpose of bringing the Gee’s Bend quilters to every venue is to give them a new frame of reference. “I [didn’t] think anything was beautiful, It was just a quilt to me,” quiltmaker Nettie Young recalled.⁶² Their first response to why they made the quilts had been “I had to keep my family warm.” Now, they are finding ways to describe their quiltmaking activities in more creative terms. Mary Lee Bendolph, age seventy-one and a quiltmaker since she was thirteen, recounts:


I started making quilts out of old clothes and flower sacks to keep warm . . . I don’t draw no quilt patterns. I just get some of the pieces and start piecing them together. It looks pretty good when I get finished with it . . . I just be myself . . . . I just want to make beautiful quilts . . . .⁶³


Most quilters pieced (or designed) alone, and quilted together, and the exhibit stresses the uniqueness of every quiltmaker’s experience and approach. Some were taught to quilt by mothers, grandmothers, or aunts, and some learned on their own. Nettie Young describes how “My mama would have me sit with her, and I was watching her and putting scraps together, doing like she was doing.” ⁶⁴ Whereas Mary L. Bennett recalled “didn’t nobody teach me to make quilts. I just learned by myself.” ⁶⁵ Mensie Lee Pettway eloquently states:


We was taught there’s so many different ways to build a quilt. It’s like building a house. You can start with a bedroom . . . . and just add on until you get what you want. Ought no two quilts ever be the same. You might use exactly the same material, but you would do it different.⁶⁶


The catalogue and wall texts would convince us that the Gee’s Bend quilts are very much designed objects whose creation includes improvisation and spontaneity, but whose planning is intellectual and conceptual, whether it took place while working a row of corn, or in the late hours of the evening. No matter that the irregular patterning and improvisation—those things that set the Gee’s Benders apart from other quiltmakers—were often done out of necessity in the early days. Scissors and rules were scarce, scraps of fabric were all they had to work with, and few had access to pattern books.

By repeated exposure to museums and the enthusiastic reception their quilts are receiving, the quiltmakers are being “transformed” along with their work. Many women had long taken pride in their creations, displaying their quilts vertically on clotheslines, fences, and woodpiles for neighbors and passersby to see. For the more reclusive among them, however, the experience of seeing their work hung up on museum walls has been indeed life-changing. The distance between these quiltmakers’ self-perception and the aesthetic frameworks in which their work is now being judged is lessening, speaking volumes about the process that has ensued since their rediscovery in 1997. ⁶⁷ As time passes, and the validation continues, the women are becoming more confident in their newfound status and identity both as artists and as a community. Arlonzia Pettway, one of the old masters of the Gee’s Bend quilters, is confident that their quilts, their designs, and even the licensing agreements that have resulted, have secured their place in history. “Things have gone too far. We have the name. They can’t take our name.”⁶⁸

The Gee’s Bend quilt phenomenon goes at the heart of what we call “art” and whom we call “artists.” At the outset, the transformation of the Gee’s Bend quilts from cultural artifacts to art world masterpieces looked like the colonization and exploitation of a marginal community by a savvy collector, his scholarly entourage, audience-hungry art museums, and the retail industry. There are, after all, an estimated twenty million quilters spending $2 billion every year, many of whom represent an untapped market as museum visitors and retail purchasers. I confess to my own skepticism at the start of this investigation. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit brought to mind other recent art museum exhibitions drawn from so-called popular culture—Norman Rockwell illustrations, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and Armani fashions at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, or acoustic guitars at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. While expanding the parameters of art production, these exhibitions were also intent on making the art museum seem more an entertainment venue than the elitist temple it has long been considered.⁶⁹ After seeing the exhibit in person, investigating how these quilts came to be recognized and promoted as art, and what success has done for the lives of the elderly quiltmakers, I (as the old saying goes) who came to scoff, remained to pray—there was more to the Gee’s Bend phenomenon than met the eye.

Knowing the barriers to the mainstream imposed on vernacular art, the Arnetts, in my view, have challenged the art world at its own game—employing impeccable scholarship and richly illustrated publications, the best art museum venues and curatorial expertise, and even the retail culture market (when they were approached by it) to introduce the quilts and the quilters to the American public. At the same time, they are helping the Gee’s Benders to protect their art and their futures.

Gee's Bend Quilters Collective


In 2003, with the assistance of the Arnett’s Tinwood Alliance, all the living quilters of Gee’s Bend—more than fifty women—founded the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to serve as the exclusive means of selling and marketing quilts being produced by the women of the Gee’s Bend. The collective is owned and operated by these women, and there is now a gallery in Gee’s Bend that represents their work. Shelly Zegart, founder of The Alliance for American Quilts and an appraiser, helped the artists establish a fair market value for their work and is now “an exclusive dealer of Gee’s Bend quilts.”⁷⁰ As opportunities arose to have the Gee’s Bend quilt designs translated into household items such as mugs, coasters, stationary, and rugs, it seemed a right move to more firmly establish their place in the cultural landscape.⁷¹ This, after all, had long been the commercial destiny of many a modern master. Replicating their designs on a variety of house wares it is one more step toward taking the quilts from a marginal status as Southern vernacular art to works on a par with paintings by Monet and van Gogh. Profits from the sales of quilts and the franchising arrangements are shared between the living quiltmakers, the gallery, and all members of the collective. There are plans to build a community center and a museum with the profits.⁷²

Gee’s Bend—what indeed is in the name? The Arnetts’ campaign to secure the name of Gee’s Bend quilts in the art historical canon, and the quilts themselves in permanent collections of American art museums, has only begun. The current traveling exhibition runs its course in 2006 and close on its heels, a second one is being prepared by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Accompanied by its own scholarly text, now being written by Bernard Herman, folklorist and art historian at the University of Delaware, the next exhibition focuses on a close reading and interpretation of the quilts from the perspective of their design. Currently titled Housetops and Bricklayers: The Architecture of the Gee’s Bend Quilts, this exhibit will, taking architecture as a metaphor, look at the quilts’ design and construction, how the Gee’s Bend artists learn their techniques, and the spaces both metaphorical and real that the quilts and quiltmakers inhabit. The second exhibition will also travel to multiple art museum venues, further establishing Gee’s Bend and its artists in the minds of the museum going public and pushing forward the scholarship essential for their legitimacy.

Thus through the resonance and wonder of these humble household quilts,⁷³ the Arnetts and their associates continue their steady assault—as profound as it is subversive—on the art museum’s resistance to vernacular art even as they empower women in the small community of Gee’s Bend to believe that their voices are finally being heard.

Conclusion


In conclusion, I would like to address the critical and theoretical implications of Gee’s Bend quilts and their reception. The successful exhibition of these quilts in art museums provokes tensions that are simultaneously celebratory and troubling.

What an art museum acquires affects how we assess the value and rarity of objects and entire fields of work.⁷⁴ Art museums have adhered to categorical divisions going back to their founding that do not easily welcome the work of unschooled outsiders. Gary Alan Fine states that
proponents of self-taught art recognize that the bastions of high culture have had only a passing interest in this field. Whether this is because these are naturally conservative institutions, and the intense interest in contemporary self-taught art is barely three decades old, or whether the value of authenticity as opposed to credentialed competence is unpersuasive, remains to be seen.⁷⁵

The works of self taught artists have been enthusiastically marketed by a world of dealers and purchased by collectors of the self-taught but have made few inroads into the permanent collections of major art museums whose missions remain ongoing acquisition and display of “masterpieces.”

This point was poignantly illustrated at one Gee’s Bend art museum venue where at the very moment of the quilt exhibit’s opening the museum was unveiling a classical Greek statue, recently acquired and put on display in its permanent collection. In the midst of the museum director’s welcoming remarks at the Gee’s Bend quilt exhibition opening, she could not refrain from celebrating the recent “masterpiece” the visitors could see upstairs from the quilt exhibition. The Gee’s Bend quilt exhibition was, after all, a passing phenomenon whereas the Greek masterpiece, a part of the canon of Western art, was destined for the museum’s permanent display. The museum had the resources to acquire this rare bronze, but had no immediate plans to purchase a Gee’s Bend quilt (a mere pittance in comparison) for its permanent collection despite the African American community it serves and the subsequent popularity of the exhibition.⁷⁶

This reluctance on the part of high art museums to deeply engage with these quilts and with self-taught art in general may have something to do with the holism of interpretation and display that these objects demand. What made the Gee’s Bend quilt exhibition work is the deep contextualization that accompanies it. These quilts do not thrive in an autonomous aesthetic domain but rather in a realm of commonsense living, spirituality, and creativity that is local, dense, and socially empowering. Moreover they challenge the divide between high art and craft and some of its false dichotomies. The Gee’s Bend quilters are at once individual artists and cultural producers, creators of unique works of art and participants in a collective enterprise, engaged in a reflective individual creativity while performing practical communal rituals intended to keep their families warm.⁷⁷

The Gee’s Bend quilt exhibition is indeed subversive. It questions the longstanding categories and institutional practices of the art museum world. These humble quilts become exalted on art museum walls and through encounter with the many voices and perspectives of an African American community called Gee’s Bend. They demand a rethinking of what art museums are there for and what they should be teaching us about our cultural heritage, and show us how best to do it.

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank Charles Russell, Bernard Herman, Matthew Arnett, Paul Arnett, Alan Wallach, Jacqueline Serwer, and George Duncan for their contributions to this article. This article relates to a paper given at the College Art Association, Atlanta, February, 2005 and an earlier version has been reproduced in Museum Anthropology, 28, no. 1 (2005).

Footnotes:

 

1. Jane Livingston, “Reflections on the Art of Gee’s Bend,” in John Beardsley et al, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (Atlanta: Tinwood Books in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2002), 50.

2. William Arnett and Paul Arnett, “On the Map,” in Beardsley, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, 35.

3. Pennina Barnett, “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend: Whitney Museum of American Art,” Crafts, no. 182 (May/June 2003): 50.

4. Charles Russell, “Finding a Place for the Self Taught in the Art Worlds,” in Charles Russell, ed., Self-Taught Art: The Culture and Aesthetics of American Vernacular Art (Jackson, MI: University of Mississippi Press, 2001), 28. See James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) and Maurice Tuchman and Carol S. Eliel, eds., Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art (Los Angeles and Princeton, NJ : Los Angeles County Museum and Princeton University Press, 1992).

5. Thanks to Charles Russell for this observation.

6. Roland Freeman, A Communion of Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers and Their Stories (Nashville, TN: Rutlege Hill Press, 1996), 28.

7. William Arnett and Paul Arnett, “On the Map,” 24-27.

8. Under Tinwood Media are Tinwood Books, Tinwood Films, and Tinwood Music. A separate company, Tinwood Ventures, deals with franchising and product development. Profits from all items related to the quilts are shared with the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective (see below).

9. Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980 (Jackson: Corcoran Gallery of Art, University Press of Mississippi and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, 1982).

10. Michael Kimmelman, “Jazzy Geometry, Cool Quilts,” New York Times, 29 November 2002.

11. The exhibition itinerary includes: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (September 8-November 10, 2002); Whitney Museum of American Art (November 27. 2002-March 9, 2003); Mobile Museum of Art (June 16-August 31, 2003); Milwaukee Art Museum (September 27, 2003-January 4, 2004); Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (February 14-May 17, 2004): Cleveland Museum of Art (June 27-September 12, 2004); Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk (October 15, 2004-January 2, 2005); Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (February 13-May 9, 2005); The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (June 1-August 21, 2005); The Jules Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University (September 11-December 4, 2005); High Museum, Atlanta (February 11-May 7, 2006).

12. Thanks to a conversation with Paul Arnett on November 4, 2004.

13. Charles Russell, “Finding a Place for the Self-Taught,” 29.

14. Bernard Herman has talked and written on this issue. Conversation with Bernard Herman, July 14, 2004. See Richard Kalina, “Gee’s Bend Modern,” Art in America, no. 10 (October 2003): 104-109, 148-149.

15. For a comparison of the two exhibits, see Thomas McEvilley, “A New Face For History?” in William Arnett and Paul Arnett eds., Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, vol. 2 (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2001), 32-45.

16. Catherine Fox, visual arts critic for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution was an exception, calling the exhibit “a revelation.” Catherine Fox, “Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 28 June 1996.

17. William and Paul Arnett et al., Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, 2 vols. (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2000 and 2001).
18. Alvia Wardlaw, “Introduction: The Quilts of Gee's Bend,” in Beardsley, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, 9.

19. Kalina, “Gee’s Bend Modern,” 104.

20. Jonathan Holstein, Abstract Design in American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition (Louisville: The Kentucky Quilt Project, 1991), 20-21.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid, 43.

23. Quilters Newsletter Magazine, no. 23 (1971), 3.

24. Holstein, Abstract Design in American Quilts, 20-21. Also see Cuesta Benberry, Always There: The African American Presence in American Quilts (Louisville: The Kentucky Quilt Project, 1992). From a quilting perspective, historian Cuesta Benberry summarized the many facets of the quilt movement in the 1970s and 1980s thus: "The new quilt movement of the last quarter of the twentieth century was stimulated by events such as the 1971 Whitney Museum of American Art quilt exhibition, the subsequent quilt exhibitions at notable museums, the publication and national distribution of periodicals solely devoted to the subject old quilts, the establishment of a multitude of local quilt guilds, the convening of national quilt conferences and seminars, and the participation of antique dealers, who responded to the growing market of old quilts." (p. 14).

25. Holstein, Abstract Design in American Quilts, 107.

26. Robert Hughes and Jane Silber, Amish: The Art of the Quilt (New York: Random House, 1990).

27. Arthur C. Danto, “Outsider Art,” in Self-Taught Art, 61.

28. William Arnett and Paul Arnett, “On the Map,” 48.

29. Grey Gundaker, “Becoming Art: Life Spans, Biographies, and the Shelp Collection,” in Testimony: Vernacular Art of the African-American South: The Ronald and June Shelp Collection (New York: H. N. Abrams in association with Exhibitions International and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 2001), 44.

30. William Arnett and Paul Arnett, “On the Map,” 45.

31. Garry Mitchell, “Gee’s Bend Quilts Head Home to Alabama After Successful New York Run,” Associated Press, 17 May 2003.

32. Livingston, “Reflections on the Art of Gee’s Bend,” 53.

33. Linda Hales, “From Museum to Housewares: Marketing Gee’s Bend Quilts,” Washington Post, 28 February 2004

34. Kalina, “Gee’s Bend Modern,”104.

35. Livingston, “Reflections on the Art of Gee’s Bend,” 57.

36. Kathy Seale, “Gee’s Bend Quilts Sewn by 46 Women to Hang in Whitney,” Birminghan News, 16 November 2002.

37. Kimmelman, “Jazzy Geometry, Cool Quilts.”

38. Patricia C. Johnson, “Extraordinary Auction Sale,” Houston Chronicle, 2 November 2003.

39 . Lisa Rauschart, “Quilts Reflect Lives, Cultures of Makers: Stories of Black, Rural Quilters Unravel From Them,” Washington Times, 12 February 2004.

40. Michael Kimmelman, “Modernism Wasn’t So American After All,” New York Times, 2 July 2004. Recent exhibitions include Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1952 to the Present, Guggenheim Museum (2003); Primary Matters: The Minimalist Sensibility, 1959 to the Present, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2003); Beyond Geometry, Los Angeles County Museum (2004); A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958-1968, Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), Los Angeles (2004) as well as changing exhibitions and the permanent installations at Dia:Beacon, Hudson, NY. Recent articles on Minimalism include, Richard Lacayo, “Blunt objects,” Time, 24 May 2004, 75-76 and Peter Schjeldahl, “Bare minimal: views from New York and Los Angeles, New Yorker, 3 May 2004, 108-109.

41. Conversation with Matt Arnett, 25 June 2004.

42. Wardlaw, “Introduction: The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” 9.

43. The video, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, was commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to accompany the exhibition. It was produced in 2002 by Tinwood Media.

44. Nancy Callahan, The Freedom Quilting Bee (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987).

45. Stephen Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp and Stephen D. Levene (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1991), 42-56.

46. A double CD of gospel music recorded in Gee’s Bend in 1941 and 2002, How We Got Over: The Sacred Songs of Gee’s Bend (Atlanta: Tinwood Media, 2002) is available in conjunction with the show. A number of the quilters sing on these CDs.

47. John Beardsley, “River Island,” in Beardsley, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, 32.

48. Ibid. , 28.

49. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Anatomy of a Quilt: The Gee’s Bend Freedom Quilting Bee,” Anthropology Today 19, no. 4 (August 2003), 15-16.

50. Michael J. Prokopow, “Material Truths: The Quilts of Gee’s Bend at the Whitney Museum of Art: An Exhibition Review,” Winterthur Portfolio 38, no. 1 (spring, 2003): 57-66.

51. Madeleine McDermott Hamm, “Pieces with Their Souls: Humble Quilts Hang Among Fine Art,” Houston Chronicle, 15 September 2002.

52. Linda Hales, “They Come from Alabama with a Blanket Artistry,” Washington Post, 4 October 2003.

53. John Beardsley, “Arrival: Quilts and Community,” in John Beardsley et al., Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2002), 214-215.

54. Thelma Golden, “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, Artforum International 42, no. 4 (December 2003): 126.

55. Rennie Young Miller, “To the Editor,” Artforum International 43, no. 7 (July 2004): 22-23

56. Livingston, “Reflections on the Art of Gee’s Bend,” 58.

57. Gundaker, “Becoming Art,” 52.

58. Shelly Zegart and Paul Arnett, Introduction to “My Way,” Quilts of Gee’s Bend, 78.

59. Gundaker, “Becoming Art,” 53.

60. Ibid, 51.

61. Michele Hiskey, “The Women of Gee’s Bend: Down-Home Quilts Charm the World of Art,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2 February 2003.

62. Ibid.

63. James Auer, “Fabric of Life: Quilts Piece Together Stories of Town’s Matriarchs,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, 21 September 2003.

64. Beardsley, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, 156.

65. Ibid, 116.

66. Ibid, 18 (sidebar).

67. Russell, “Finding a Place for the Self-Taught,” 7.

68. Linda Hales, “From Museum to Housewares: Marketing Gee’s Bend Quilts.”

69. Alan Wallach, “Norman Rockwell at the Guggenheim,” in Andrew McClellan, ed., Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 97-115

70. See www.shellyquilts.com/geesbend/why.html.

71. According to Paul Arnett, the commercial ventures approached Tinwood and not the other way around. It was with much soul searching that these agreements were entered into. The mechanisms to distribute profits to the quiltmakers will be similar to those of the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective. Conversation with Paul Arnett on November 4, 2004.

72. Among the commercial ventures, Tinwood Ventures has entered into an agreement with Kathy Ireland Worldwide who will introduce a line of home products based on The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. The Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective has partnered with Tinwood Ventures and Anthropologie to reproduce quilts by Collective quiltmakers http://www.quiltsofgeesbend.com/history/ In the Fall 2004 Anthropologie catalogue, there are replicas of three quilts by Irene Williams, Delia Bennett, and Polly Bennett. In the catalogue one reads: "Gee’s Bend quilts exhibited in galleries across the nation, the coveted quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama are surviving examples of a rich cultural history—enduring heirlooms of a timeless art, preserving stories of their seamstresses. Our replicas are from a limited edition, finely crafted by hand in a likeness of the originals sewn by quilters generations ago. Stitched from patches of cotton in an array of shades and weights. Machine wash. Imported."

73. Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” 42-56.

74. Gary Alan Fine, Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 271.

75. Ibid. Fine gives a summary of the art museum’s dilemma vis-à-vis self-taught art in his recent sociological analysis of the self-taught art world building on the earlier work of Howard Becker.

76. The Cleveland Museum of Art bought a fourth century B.C. bronze sculpture thought to represent Apollo the Lizard Slayer by the classical Greek sculptor Praxiteles or his workshop. The director of the museum, Katherine Lee Reid, announced its unveiling at the opening ceremony of The Quilts of Gee’s Bend on Friday, June 25, 2004. A curator later told me that there were there were no plans to purchase a quilt from the exhibit despite its popularity.

77. Lynn M. Hart, “Three Walls: Regional Aesthetics and the International Art World,” in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology ed. George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 139-40.



About Sally Anne Duncan, Ph.D.


Sally Duncan was originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She began making quilts in 1980 under the tutelage of Sally Palmer Fields of Chelmsford, Massachusetts. She and her husband George settled in Peterborough, NH in 1985.

Mrs. Duncan studied Fine Arts as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago and soon combined an interest in abstract design with a lifelong love of fabric and textiles.

In 1994 she returned to college to earn M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Art History from Tufts University in 2001 where she also taught prior to accepting the post of Visiting Professor of Art History at Plymouth University. She has given papers at leading art history symposia and she has had numerous articles published in a variety of art journals.

She was a member of College Art Association, Organization of American Historians, American Studies Association, American Association of Museums, and the New England Museum Association and served on the Collections Committee, Fitchburg Art Museum. She published widely, including “From Cloth to Canvas: Reinventing Gee’s Bend Quilts in the Name of Art ,” Museum Anthropology, 28, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 19-34; “Reinventing Gee’s Bend Quilts in Name of Art,” in Sacred and Profane: Personal Voice and Vision in Southern Self-Taught Art edited by Charles Russell and Carol Crown,, 2005; and
“The Via Media of Art Museum Practice: Henry Watson Kent and the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Curator: The Museum Journal 48, no. 3 (July 2005): 301-317. For a full listing of her publications, see the Artist's Index on this SAQAU site.

Mrs. Duncan’s quilts were 100% hand sewn. They have been shown in Massachusetts, especially at the annual New England Quilts Exhibition in Lowell, MA. She was a member of The Quilters’ Connection in Arlington, MA.

Her special interest in quiltmaking was the adaptation of traditional designs to contemporary colors and materials.
Ms. Duncan died in 2007.

George Duncan, Sally Anne Duncan's husband, who gave permission to SAQA University to use Carol's article, forwarded this message, written in Ms. Duncan's online Remembrance Book: "Below is an entry in Sally's online Remembrance Book by one of the Gee's Bend quilters:"
"October 6, 2007
"Wow!!! I never met this remarkable woman, I was getting ready to inform her of some great news out of Gee's Bend, Alabama after reading her wonderful article from 2005 on the quilts. I'm sure she would be proud to know that one of the quilters, my mother in law, has launched her own private line. Her article along with countless others gave her the strength to step out in faith and make this venture one for the ages. We are truly grateful to Sally for her interest in our history, our story, our quilts. God be with her family, friends, colleagues and those whose lives she touched through words of wisdom and how she lived her life....to the fullest. Thank You, Sally!!!! From Tinnie Pettway-Gee's Bend quilter, DeLon and Claudia Charley
DeLon Charley (Gee's Bend, AL)"