Out of Necessity: Stitching Freedom, Stitching Art

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Out of Necessity: Stitching Freedom, Stitching Art

Thirty-five Black women take their places at a row of tables just outside the second floor galleries of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. They are warm, charming, graceful. They come from a place few know or have seen. Yet, their presence evokes a universal spirituality and quiet wisdom that calms the soul.

The women are the quilters of Gee's Bend, and on this day, they have traded in their sewing needles for black writing pens. They are busy autographing coffee table books that explore their lives and the history of their quilts, which have been stitched in their rural Alabama community over the past eight decades.

The women are amazed that the quilts they made to keep their children warm in the winter are now the focus of one of the most popular gallery attractions in the nation. "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" exhibition is more than half way through an 11-city tour to museums around the country. The exhibit features 70 quilts hand made by the women of Gee's Bend, an isolated, region bordered on three sides by the Alabama River. Until recently the quilts were kept under beds and in closets. Now they are being praised by art critics as important works of modern American art.

Art collector William Arnett, who "discovered" the artists after seeing a picture of one of the quilts in Roland L. Freeman's 1996 book Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers and their Stories, describes the quilts as a "parallel visual component" to the kind of improvisation found in African American musical forms such as jazz and gospel.

According to Arnett, the quilts of Gee's Bend, are "a spectrum of a culture that has gone unnoticed, untapped and unduly not respected."

THE EARLY YEARS

There is a single dirt road into Gee's Bend. The community takes its name from Joseph Gee, a White planter from Halifax, N.C., who moved to the area in 1816 and named it after himself. He established a cotton plantation and upon his death in 1824, left the land and 47 Black slaves to two of his nephews.

In 1845, the Gees settled a $29,000 debt to cousin Mark H. Pettway by transferring ownership of the plantation to him. Pettway arrived in Gee's Bend a year later from North Carolina with about 1OO slaves of his own.

After emancipation, the Black families remained on the land as sharecroppers, working first for the Pettways and later for a series of other owners after the Pettway family sold the plantation in 1895.

During the years of the Great Depression the price of cotton fell to five cents per pound. Blacks in the area, known as Benders, rode a makeshift ferry over five miles of river to take their cotton to nearby Camden where a merchant stored it, waiting for an increase in price. He continued to advance the Benders credit, securing their debts with chattel liens on the properties of Gee's Bend families.

When the merhant died in the summer of 1932, his widow foreclosed on the debts, taking the possessions of more than 300 Benders in 68 families.

The Black residents would have starved without the relief efforts of the Red Cross and the National Guard, which ferried flour, meat and corn meal to the region.

Poor and isolated, Benders learned to I waste nothing and appreciate everything.

"You don't know nothing about hard times," says Nettie Young, 87. "You know how old 1 was before I had my first pair of shoes? Twelve years old."

FABRIC OF LIFE

With little money for store-bought goods the ladies of Gee's Bend needed to find a way to keep their large families warm in drafty houses. So when their sons and husbands wore holes in the knees of their denim work pants or when the top sections of cotton dresses became thin after years of working in the cotton fields, instead of throwing the old clothes away, the women saved the material. They also ripped apart empty flour and cornmeal sacks, bleached them and stored these recycled fabrics in their homes. …