Academic journal article College English

"But a Quilt Is More": Recontextualizing the Discourse(s) of the Gee's Bend Quilts

Academic journal article College English

"But a Quilt Is More": Recontextualizing the Discourse(s) of the Gee's Bend Quilts

Article excerpt

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 over there, or a den over here, and just add on until you get what you want. Ought not two quilts ever be the same. You might use exactly the same material, but you would do it different. A lot of people make quilts just for your bed for to keep you warm. But a quilt is more. It represents safekeeping, it represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history.

Mensie Lee Pettway, qtd. in Arnett

Sometimes I don't know my color. Sometimes it don't matter what color it is, I just feel that it will fit. When I hold it up and look at it, if it don't look right in there, I take it out. Sometimes it looks good, and sometimes it don't look right or it don't look the way I want it to be, so I take it out. Sometimes I let it stay in there. If I let it stay in there, it is a challenge to me. Then I try another piece to get it to work out. And then it come out right. When I finish it and lay it on the bed, I see all them pieces that I didn't believe would work, but I made it work. And it looks good to me. And that's what matters.

Mary Lee Bendolph 178

I never did like the book patterns some people had. [. . .] I work it out, study the way to make it, get it to be right, kind of like working a puzzle. You find the colors and the shapes and certain fabrics that work out right. [. . .] I stayed with what I started with: old clothes that I could tear up. It always come out level.

Annie Mae Young, qtd. in Arnett and Arnett 104

In their descriptions of the quiltmaking process, Gee's Bend quiltmakers Mensie Lee Pettway, Mary Lee Bendolph, and Annie Mae Young describe a complex set of composing practices: the women make decisions about where to start, what materials and colors to use, and how to design quilts that will "look right" and "come out level." When designing their quilts, the women do not follow a prescribed pattern. Instead, they "puzzle" over how to rework flour and fertilizer sacks, old work clothes, and factory remnants into quilts that serve both a practical purpose, as covers to keep their families warm, and a larger purpose, as objects that represent "safekeeping," "beauty," and "family history."

Gee's Bend, Alabama, has periodically gained and lost the attention of journalists, historians, ethnographers, folklorists, government workers, and art critics, who have created a narrative of the community as a "civilization unto itself" whose "geographic isolation and [. . .] unusual degree of cultural continuity" have made it an intriguing site to study the experience of African Americans in the rural South during slavery, Reconstruction, Works Progress Administration programs, and pre- and post-civil rights reforms. Gee's Bend has also been described as a haven of creativity for its inhabitants who create brilliant, abstract work-clothes quilts in conditions of extreme poverty and "isolation" (Arnett and Arnett 36; Wardlaw 10). Although the women's quilts came into and vanished from the national spotlight several times during the twentieth century, it wasn't until the 2000s that the women and their quilts became an internationally celebrated cultural phenomenon, thanks to controversial collector and promoter of African American vernacular art of the South, William Arnett, who brought the quilts to the attention of the "high art" community. The art community heralded the women for their modernist, abstract, painterly use of color and brilliant designing of leftover materials, and the women quickly saw their work move from clotheslines and beds to museum walls.

Scholars in English studies have increasingly come to recognize the value of studying women's material culture-including dressmaking, textile and sampler making, quiltmaking, scrapbooking, and cookbook writing-as an important discursive practice (see Mattingly; Goggin and Tobin; Eves; Showalter; Hedges). …

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