The tradition of quilt making is considered a uniquely American artform. Now, New York's Whitney Museum of American of Art is celebrating the highly sophisticated artistry of four generations of African-American women quilt makers from a rural town called Gee's Bend in the Southern U.S. State of Alabama.
Annie Mae Young has been "piecing together" quilts since she was sixteen. She learned the craft from her mother, who was taught the tradition by her mother. Mrs. Young says quilt makers in the past used everything, corduroy, denim, the material from old clothes, to make quilts stuffed with cotton to keep warm in the unheated homes of Gee's Bend, Alabama. "I didn't have [anything] else to piece [together] quilts," she says. "And I just [used] whatever I could find."
Mrs. Young is one of a handful of women from Gee's Bend who continues the quilt making tradition. Now, at 70 years old, she says she is thrilled to be at the Whitney Museum in New York City, one of the nation's most important institutions of American Art, where her quilts are among the sixty on display.
Gee's Bend is a community made up of descendants of former black slaves. It is known for its traditions of singing and quilt making. In the past, the women in the impoverished town worked on the quilts in groups after a long day toiling in the cotton or sugar cane plantations. While they sewed, they often relayed painful stories of their ancestors.
The artists make bold visual statements with swatches of bright reds, blues, purples and greens shown in rectangles and squares, circles, pinwheels and zig-zagging shapes. Associate curator Debra Singer says that the designs reflect sophisticated, improvisational artistic choices. "I would also say they are distinct from many other kinds of quilts," she says. "What is really quite exceptional is the paring down and deliberate simplification of forms that yields this almost minimalist aesthetic that is really unique and special to the Gee's Bend area."
Experts say that the geographic isolation of Gee's Bend allowed the women to create their own designs that vary from traditional styles. They reveal a sense of artistic freedom, confidence and imagination.
Some of the earliest quilts on display date back to the 1930s and are made out of the same faded and patched blue jeans that men of the community wore to work the fields. The quilts became both functional blankets and memorials to deceased relatives.
Like many modern and folk artists, the women of Gee's Bend incorporated material from their daily lives that now highlight historic periods. They made quilts with corn meal sacs of the 1930's, voter registration banners from the civil rights movement and bright orange floral prints of the back to Africa period in the 1960's and 1970's.
Curator Alvia Warldlaw of the Houston Museum of Contemporary Art in Texas, which first exhibited the quilts earlier this year, describes one quilt made out of corduroy, a material that was donated to the quilt makers in the 1970's. "Looking at it from across the room you see this mass of pale color, but when you approach it, you notice how she has positioned these segments and there is a kind of shadow of an effect, a breakdown visually of these quilt squares that is very complicated," says Ms. Warldlaw. "So it is a quilt that you can look at on many different levels."
In 1976, Annie Mae Young, who is one of the most respected quilt makers from Gee's Bend, created a quilt of corduroy and denim work clothes. It is a truly modern work with a center medallion of red and brown strips, surrounded by different shades of blue.
Now that Mrs. Young is receiving national attention, she is is working on a new quilt in a similar style to one of her earlier works featured prominently in the exhibit. It has large blue squares with white borders and seemingly random red sections. "It has dark and has white around it. That makes it look pretty," she says. "That is the way I want it to look. I am trying to make it look pretty."
Mrs. Young says she was never trying to create a work of art. She admits that she made her quilts for both warmth and beauty.