Arts and Quilts

By Zeaman, John | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), September 20, 2014 | Go to article overview

Arts and Quilts


Zeaman, John, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


About 12 years ago, the art world was startled by a show of quilts made by a little-known community of artists in Alabama. They were all poor black women living in a place called Gee's Bend, a U- shaped peninsula bordered on three sides by a loop in the Alabama River.

These women, descendants of slaves, didn't consider themselves artists. But that didn't matter, because the collectors, scholars, critics and the museums that hosted the exhibit - including the Whitney Museum of American Art - did.

The quilts were praised for their gorgeous color and large- pattern design. The Gee's Bend quilters improvised like jazz musicians, doing riffs on traditional geometric patterns and injecting unexpected asymmetries into classic block or log cabin designs. Comparisons were drawn to the work of European modernists like Paul Klee or Henri Matisse.

In the aftermath of this landmark show, scholars and authors scrambled to analyze and explain the accomplishment of these unsophisticated women, most of whom had never set foot in a museum or even looked at an art book. Some scholars drew a line from the American quilts back to West African textiles. Others pointed out that the African-American quilters were much more tolerant of "mistakes." They treated little glitches as personal marks or interesting variations, which may have fostered a creative approach that was amplified over generations.

Now, the Montclair Art Museum has opened an exhibit of Alabama quilts from the collection of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Only one of the quilters hails from the now legendary Gee's Bend. Others are from places such as Tuscaloosa, Pickens County, Yazoo City and the town of Boligee (pop. 331). All are black women from rural backgrounds, and some of their quilts are just as eye-popping as the ones that caused so much excitement in 2002.

This is a much more eclectic show, however. Some quilters work in the traditional geometric patterns, but others draw pictures in cloth, treating religious subjects, black history and the accomplishments of famous people.

It's also a more contemporary affair. Most of the Gee's Bend quilts were made in the '60s and '70s. Many of these quilts are from that era and earlier, but many others are from the 1990s or 2000s. …

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