Searching for the next subject for The Vision Thing, I watched a documentary about the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and their bold and beautiful quilts. I like how that documentary unfolds as it transports you into their lives and helps you see the world as they do. But as I researched the history of the area and the women, I saw it becoming a more complicated story.
Ultimately, I got stuck and had to let things simmer for a while. Finally, I think the piece is ready to share, so I’d like to start with Maris Curran’s documentary about Gee’s Bend, “While I Yet Live.”
Filmmaker Maris Curran
Maris Curran brings a lively curiosity to her projects. In “While I Yet Live,” she stitches together a visual tapestry about Gee’s Bend and the women who fashion quilts there.
Maris: “I had known about the Gee’s Bend Quilters because their work had been exhibited at several museums, including at the Whitney Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. I had always been struck by their work, but when researching more about the work, found that the women’s voices were absent.”
Maris: “Most people here grew up watching their mothers, aunts or grandmothers quilt. The quilts of Gee’s Bend reflect a collective history and deep sense of place. And they register the bold individual voices of the women who made them.”
“While I Yet Live”
Take a look at her documentary.
If the video doesn’t play, you can find it here.
I like how her documentary threads together the close community of women quilters, their ties to the past and their appreciation for the land that supports them. You can see that she came to Gee’s Bend with an open mind, ready to record what she found there.
Maris: “I came to listen. To hear what it has meant to raise children, care for parents, work full time, farm and take the time to dedicate to making something beautiful for themselves, their families and their community. When I spoke with the women in the film, they articulated the joys of their lives as well as the struggles.”
Maris’ Approach to Storytelling
As Maris unfolds her story in a relaxed pace, she gives you time to reflect. She uses natural sound, simple images and thoughtful editing to ease you into the slower pace of life in Gee’s Bend. You get a sense of stillness, of those quiet moments that foster creativity. Shot by shot, she stitches together images of the sky, river and land to suggest how they might inspire the women and shape the quilts.
Maris: “I was interested in putting the film together almost like a quilt. You look at the quilts and then you look at the surroundings and you see this dialogue happening between place, between architecture and the landscape, and the work that these women are making.”
I like how the video honors the women and their shared experience, hymns and faith.
Maris: “I went in thinking that the film is about making art in everyday life, inspiration and kinship, but ultimately, I think the film is all about love — love of family, love of God and also love of self.”
At first, I thought this would be a good place to end this post, with that quote from Maris about love. But I had some questions. I wanted to know more about Gee’s Bend and the quilters, so I started to explore. Here’s what I found.
A Quick History of Gee’s Bend
Gee’s Bend, located in Wilcox County, Alabama is a remote and somewhat isolated community of families descended from slaves. After the Civil War, many stayed on the former plantation as sharecroppers, picking cotton and living on subsistence from the food they could grow. During the Great Depression, racism and economic hardship devastated the community. In 1937, the Farm Security Administration sent photographer Arthur Rothstein to Gee’s Bend to document how the people there were hanging on. Here are a few of his images:
To help relieve their desperate situation, the Roosevelt administration bought the land, formed a cooperative, built homes and sold parcels of farm land to the families. Since slavery times, the women of Gee’s Bend had a tradition of making quilts to keep their families warm.
There’s only one road in to Gee’s Bend. Just a few hundred people live there now, on a peninsula of land that juts into the Alabama River. Camden is the closest town, 7 miles by water ferry or 40 miles by land.
The Civil Rights Struggle Comes to Gee’s Bend
Until 1965, not a single resident of Gee’s Bend was able to register to vote. They faced white-supremacist officials running Wilcox county, poll taxes, literacy tests and the KKK, all to keep them from registering. The Rev. Martin Luther King came there to speak and encourage people to fight for their right to vote.
Inspired by Rev. King, people from Gee’s Bend took the ferry to Camden and tried to register to vote.
In response, Wilcox county officials shut down the ferry.
“We didn’t close the ferry because they were black,” Sheriff Lummie Jenkins reportedly said at the time. “We closed it because they forgot they were black.” Smithsonian Magazine
But the residents of Gee’s Bend were undeterred. A resident explained, “We kept right on marching. Only difference was we had to load up in trucks and drive all the way around.” theoutline.com
County officials kept the ferry closed for 40 years.
Selling Quilts, Raising Money
A year after Dr. King organized the voting drive, a visiting Episcopal priest and civil rights worker came to Gee’s Bend. When he saw their quilts, he helped the women set up a cooperative, the Freedom Quilting Bee, as a way to empower the community. He helped them sell their quilts in New York City.
From the New York Times:
The first check from New York, $2,065 for more than 70 quilts, went to necessities like washing machines, indoor plumbing and, in at least one instance, college tuition for the great-granddaughter of a slave.
It was the first black-owned business in Wilcox County and for a brief time, offered the quilt makers a way to promote and sell their work. It didn’t last.
William Arnett Visits Gee’s Bend
Thirty years later, intrigued by a photograph showing one of the quilts, William Arnett visited the area and started to buy and collect Gee’s Bend quilts.
Arnett had money and a passion for Southern African- American folk art. He’d spent years as a dealer in Chinese and African art. From the New Yorker:
Arnett devoted the second half of his career to the art of African-American Southerners, funded by the sale of his earlier collections and, occasionally, by loans from friends. He had spent millions of dollars supporting black artists, and had self-published books that explained his views.
“This art wasn’t created to entertain people or to sell to rich people,” Arnett went on. “It was created to commemorate the culture itself, so that it could last, so that grandmama could tell grandson, ‘This is what we’re about, child.’ ”
The Quilts Become Folk Art
Arnett promoted his quilt collection as folk art and in 2002, arranged with the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Whitney to mount a traveling exhibition of his quilts. They received glowing reviews as the exhibition traveled the country from museum to museum.
From the New York Times:
The 70 quilts in the exhibition, over half by living artists, are among roughly 530 Gee’s Bend quilts amassed over the last five years by William Arnett, a controversial Atlanta collector and passionate documentarian of vernacular African-American folk art, whose relationship with some artists he has championed has led in the past to accusations of exploitation.
”I paid them three or four times the going rate,” he [Arnett] said. ”But these quilts may be worth a hundred times that one day.”
Arnett had the background and connections to promote his collection. The women who made the quilts were invited to the exhibits and some were interviewed by the media, but it was the William S. Arnett Collection that was featured in the museums.
As a collector and promoter, Arnett has drawn praise and condemnation. In 2000, Jane Fonda gave his book company $1 million to publish art books on Southern African-American folk artists, including two books about the quilts and quilters of Gee’s Bend.
William Arnett and the Quilters of Gee’s Bend
In 2003, he helped the quilters set up the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to market their quilts. It started with about 50 members and now has about 15 women actively making quilts. Arnett was sued by three Gee’s Bend women who claimed they weren’t properly compensated for their art. Other quilters say they were treated fairly.
In 2010, Arnett founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which is “dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the contributions of African American artists from the South.” So far, over 350 of the Foundation’s 1,100 works (including quilts) from the William S. Arnett Collection are now in the permanent collections of leading American and international art museums.
Value, Art and Money
A subtext of this story is the intersection of value, art and money. Before Arnett, people valued the quilts as quilts. After Arnett built his collection, promoted the quilts as folk art and helped get them into major museums, they were valued and sold as art. Arnett owned the intellectual property rights to his quilts and licensed their images for display on everyday items.
Most of the financial benefit did not find its way back to Gee’s Bend. It remains the poorest community in Alabama, with a median income of less than $15,000. Now, most of Gee’s Bend quilters are elderly and few people remain to carry on the tradition.
Were the women fairly acknowledged and compensated? Without Arnett’s promotion and financial resources, the quilters of Gee’s Bend would likely not have their work featured in major museums. Nor would they likely have received national recognition for their creations. Still, their hands and creative expression transformed cloth and thread into beautiful and dramatic works of art. It seems to me that their poverty and race kept them outside the frame of established art circles, and without that entre, others reaped the benefit of their creations. That’s my take on it, what do you think?
National Heritage Award
A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts gave a special honor to three of the women.
From the NEA site:
By piecing together scraps of fabric and clothing, they were creating abstract designs that had never before been expressed on quilts. Artists, educators, and memory keepers, these women ensure their art form will continue to be celebrated by future generations.
Necessity Births Creativity
For generations, Gee’s Bend quilts were born from necessity, flowing from the hands of the women who came together to share, sing and sew. Their quilts were beautiful because they were made with love, to keep their people warm and cozy during the cold, windy nights.
And they were beautiful because the women quilted themselves into their work. They’re a part of the story locked inside of each quilt.
From the NYT:
”We’d get together and make the quilts just like we’re praying together,” recalled Mary Lee Bendolph.
”We had no TV, no radio, no nothing. That’s the way we learned — sitting watching our mamas piecing the quilt. When the sun came down you be in the house together, laughing and talking. We were more blessed then.”
“Shapes From My Southern Culture”
Amy Sherald, the artist who created Michelle Obama’s iconic portrait, visited Gee’s Bend in 2018.
Alex Ronan writes:
Sherald told me, “When I was working with Michelle’s [Obama] stylist, we were discussing different options, and when I saw that [Milly] dress I instantly thought of Gee’s Bend,” she said.
“For me, it was a way to connect that painting to black history. Those shapes have that meaning for me. I don’t connect them to European art or anything like that… those shapes come from my Southern culture, quilt making, underground railroad maps, those kinds of things.” Alex Ronan, the outline.com
Stitched into the quilts of Gee’s Bend is a blend of Southern culture, history, creativity, community, the natural world, local artifacts, faith, love and family. The quilts emerged from poverty but offer a rich reminder that art can be created in any circumstance.
As always, your comments are much appreciated.