Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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Gee’s Bend – The Ties That Bind

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.

The Post Office issued stamps honoring Gee’s Bend quilts  in 2006.

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 from the Nantucket Film Festival site

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.”

photo from the SuzyQuilts site

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 Curran, from the Philadelphia Enquirer site

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:

A typical home in Gee’s Bend. Photos by Arthur Rothstein, 1937.

The homes had no electricity, plumbing, or heat.

Gee’s Bend sharecroppers grew cotton, peanuts, okra, corn, peas and potatoes.

Drawing water from the well.

Newspapers were used as crude insulation from the cold.

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.

Lucy Mooney making a quilt with her granddaughters. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

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.

The ferry between Gee’s Bend and Camden. FSA photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1939.

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.

Freedom Quilting Bee Quilts on Display, 1966 photo

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.

William Arnett, 2017 photo from the Atlanta Journal Constitution

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.’ ”

Lucy Mingo Quilt, photo from SoulsGrownDeep Foundation

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.

Loretta Pettway Quilt, photo from SoulsGrownDeep Foundation

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.

Gee’s Bend Cooperative, 2011, from the University of Alabama site

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.

Mary Lee Bendolph Quilt, photo from SoulsGrownDeep Foundation

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.

2015 NEA National Heritage Award Recipients. L to R Loretta Pettway, Lucy Mingo, and             Mary Lee Bendolph. Photo by Tom Pich

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.

Mary Lee Bendolph, from the SoulsGrownDeep site

”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.”

Mary Lee Bendolph Quilt, photo from SoulsGrownDeep Foundation

“Shapes From My Southern Culture”

Amy Sherald, the artist who created Michelle Obama’s iconic portrait, visited Gee’s Bend in 2018.

Members of the Collective pose with Amy Sherald (holding a quilt). Photo by Alex Ronan, The Outline 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.

Portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald

“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.

You can find out more about the quilts of Gee’s Bend here,  here , here and here.

As  always, your comments are much appreciated.

Ed Sheeran & Friends Shape a Song

Shaping the Creative Process

The creative process fascinates me – how artists and musicians can start with a blank slate and then make something out of nothing. Usually, all we get to see or hear is the finished piece and, if it’s good, it glows like a polished gem.

But creators shape their work bit by bit. As it flows, the creative process brings together many little moments of inspiration and discovery. Some pieces fit easily like hand in glove, others fall away to be replaced by something better. How it all comes together often remains a mystery.

So, I was excited to see a NYT video that takes us behind the scenes to explore how singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran and his music collaborators created what would become the biggest pop song of 2017.

Ed Sheeran performs “Shape of You” at the 2017 Grammy Awards (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

From a NYT article describing the Shape of You recording session:

“Shape of You” was written in a brainstorming session where ideas are developed or discarded fast, with computers and instruments close at hand and recorders running. “The best songs that I’ve ever written, I don’t really remember writing,” Mr. Sheeran said. “They take like 20 minutes and then they’re just done. And then you move on to the next thing.”

Visualizing Creativity

What makes the NYT video unusual is how it uses music, graphic imagery and text to enhance the interviews. It helps us visualize all the little moments of discovery and inspiration that were pieced together to create the song. The graphics not only give the video a unique look, they also help tie everything together.

As the musicians play a little music riff or talk about working together to build the song,  you’ll see visual representations of the music’s rhythm, its melodic ramblings and little word bubbles mirroring the birth of lyrics.

The graphic elements kick your understanding up to the next level, as the musicians’ sensitivity to each other, their creative energy and the music’s pulse all beat together in delicious harmony.

Here’s the video. I apologize for the ad at the beginning. When it finishes playing you’ll need to click the pause button or else it will continue playing other random videos. 

(If the video doesn’t display correctly, you can click on this link)

Putting the Pieces Together

On the face of it, the video seems fairly simple, like the song. Bring the musicians into the studio, interview them individually, shoot them in black and white against a white background, edit and shape their comments and, seemingly, you’re done. But, adding the music and graphics makes the presentation much more fun and engaging.

The music riffs in the background add energy and help illustrate and counterpoint the commentary. The graphic touches – a music bar that pulses with the beat, dots of melody or rhythm that come and go, little graphic grids to breakup the visual space, text bubbles with lyrics and comments, all hold up a mirror to the creative process.

from the NYT video

The result is a complex, carefully-timed and layered video inspired by a complex, carefully-timed and layered song.

I know from my own experience, when creativity flows, you’re totally present within the moments of inspiration. Time disappears, it’s an exhilarating, empowering feeling. It’s nice to see how much of that was captured in the video.

You can read the NYT article about the making of the song here. You can poke around animator Taylor Beldy’s site here.

So, did you like the video as much as I did? Is the creative process the same for a pop singer/songwriter as with any other artist? What’s your take away? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Picking Through the Pieces: A Father’s Legacy

Mystery Men

I wonder why some fathers appear to their adult children as mystery men. Is it just hard to see them for who they are, outside of the father child relationship? Is it that some fathers are uncomfortable expressing their feelings so they stay hidden, as the strong, silent type? Or when they pass too early, perhaps we’re unable to see them through adult eyes. And so, they become mystery men.

I know my father was a good man, but I’m not sure I got who he was, outside of being my dad. I only learned about some of the events that defined his early life after he passed. I’ve even thumbed through a diary, but its yielded few clues. So, how do you get to understand that mystery man?

Perhaps you’ve asked yourself that question. Growing up, maybe you rarely connected beyond the ritual moments of family life. A person can be so removed, perhaps you were left with no way in.

Charlie Tyrell Asks a Question

screen capture

That question, “Who was my father, really?” haunted Canadian filmmaker Charlie Tyrell. He felt estranged from his father, who died when Charlie was a young man. Wanting to understand the man and explore what made him tick, he decided to make a film.

Charlie Tyrell, from the Sundance site

 

Charlie: “This film was kind of made out of a feeling that I hadn’t completely settled my grief… I felt like I never got to know him as an adult and had to acknowledge that I would never be able to know him from that perspective. So this was me as a fully formed adult taking what I had left of him and what we all knew of him to try to build that to develop a better understanding of him.”

 

Charlie’s effort to understand his father launched him on an archeological dig of sorts as he poured through the wealth of  tools, tapes and detritus left behind after his dad passed away. Maybe the essence of the man lay buried somewhere in all that stuff. Charlie hoped animating all those objects would help animate his father. The result is a whimsical and poignant film Charlie calls, “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes.”

screen capture

I want to be clear, the film is not about porno, but about the things left behind and Charlie’s struggle to make them speak to him (and us) about his father’s legacy.

I’ll add that I have my own collection of things my mother and father left behind and I like to mull over them now and then. I guess that’s why it’s easy to identify with Charlie’s efforts to unravel the mysteries of his father. See what you think – his video is on the short list as a contender for an Academy Award. I apologize for the ad that precedes the video.

Charlie’s Award-Winning Video

Charlie’s Creative Approach

I found Charlie’s video very moving. It starts in one place, with the home movies and that crazy collection of things left behind, and gradually moves to a much deeper understanding of the family dynamics that shaped his father’s personality. It’s a great example of storytelling.

Having another voice narrate the video creates a quirky third person perspective that enhances the story. I like how he uses animation to remind us of all those inanimate tools and objects, and still photos to show who is speaking. The photos fit right into his animation style and give identity and immediacy to the comments.

screen capture

The animation and text on screen keep us locked on Charlie’s effort to decode the meaning of all those piles of stuff. And just when you feel there’s little to be revealed in those tools, videos and artifacts, the film takes a turn to explore the story of abuse meted out from one generation to the next. After starting with his father’s illness and death and carrying it back to his dad’s boyhood, Charlie looks to his dad’s mother and her childhood to find the key that helps unlock the mystery of the man.

photo by Jen Fairchild, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

 

 Charlie: “I spent a year getting to know my dad in an unusual way. I was learning about his life and the things he did not have time to tell me. I learned to have empathy for a complex man whom I was rather hard on when I was younger.”

Choice or Destiny?

What shapes us? We all make personal choices that define who we are and how we respond to the people close to us. And there’s a strong legacy of personality and behavior that’s handed down from one generation to the next.

My mother liked to say, “wait until you have children of your own, then you’ll understand,” as a way of explaining her decisions and actions. She’s right, it’s difficult to see your parents as they see themselves or understand the choices they make. While we may gain perspective as we mature, our early perceptions can limit our ability to discover a deeper sense of who they are.

photo by by Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images

Charlie: “I thought talking about my dad and his life would be cathartic for me. We never expected it to be broadly received, but strangers are emailing me about the similarities, so it has gotten some traction and it’s a story that people relate to. My grandma came from the generation where you have this abuse/trauma you don’t talk about it. My dad had that as well, but it was at least acknowledged it, and it didn’t continue.”

Charlie’s video does a good job bridging that divide between seeing our parents as locked in orbit around us and understanding how their trajectories impact our own.

There’s a NYT commentary about the making of Charlie’s film you can see here.

If you like Charlie’s quirky filmmaking style, you can check out an earlier film on a completely different subject here.

So what do you think? Does the video work for you? How did you respond to Charlie’s approach to telling his father’s story? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

Between Sound and Silence

If you’re like me, you probably take your senses for granted. I rarely think about them, which is why the video Between Sound and Silence captivated me.

Most of us use seeing, hearing, taste, touch and smell to help us experience and make sense of our world. With our eyes, we can see and understand what lies before us. If you close your eyes… there’s nothing there… you can imagine what it might be like if you couldn’t see. And with hearing?

Our ears help us understand the world, too. Imagine watching a movie with the sound turned off… you’d be watching a silent picture without words to guide you. You might be able to figure out what’s happening through body language, but you’d miss the nuance, emotion and meaning that sound conveys.

If I thought about it at all, I assumed being deaf meant you were living within a silent movie. It’s much more complicated than that, which brings me to the video I’d like to share with you.

From Silence to Sound

Irene Taylor Brodsky

Between Sound and Silence was made by award-winning filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky . It features people who are deaf or hearing impaired who’ve become able to hear via cochlear implants. The issue of implants is controversial, I learned, because there’s a whole language and culture around deafness. People without hearing share their own special world and fellowship. Brodsky’s video introduces us to 14 people who use the implants to travel the space between silence and sound.

 

In a NYT article, she explains:

“They had navigated the frontiers of deafness, disability and the human experience. They spoke to us about identity, sexual intimacy and coming of age somewhere between sound and silence. And they talked about the sometimes, wrenching decision of whether to hear or not.”

 

Between Sound and Silence

Take a look and see what you think. (I apologize for the ad that precedes the video).

Some Observations

Between Sound and Silence is very well structured. First, your ear notices people speaking as if English is not their primary language, then you see the implants they use to help them hear. You learn how hearing themself speak affects their speech and ability to communicate. Then, they help you understand how they try to flourish in a world where the ability to hear is assumed. As I watched, it was like being part of a fascinating conversation. It flowed so easily from one comment to the next.

More than anything, the people you meet in the video are so appealing and eager to share their experiences. What makes it work so well is the filmmaker’s ability as an interviewer – she’s there, behind the scenes, helping everyone just hang out with the camera. She uses a deft hand as she seamlessly weaves together their comments. Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentaries have won many awards and you can find out more about her here.

This piece also made me think about how easy it is to take our abilities for granted. And that sometimes, it’s nice to just stop for a moment and think about how they make our lives all the richer for being there.

Your comments are always welcome.

 

 

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