Gee’s Bend was named after Joseph Gee, the first white man to stake a claim there in the early 1800s. The Gee family sold the plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845. Most of the approximately 750 people who live in Gee’s Bend today are descendants of slaves on the former Pettway plantation. Their forebears continued to work the land as tenant farmers after emancipation, and many eventually bought the farms from the government in the 1940s. Isolated geographically, the women in the community created quilts from whatever materials were available, in patterns of their own imaginative design.
Loretta Pettway has spent her whole life in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a tiny rural community largely cut off from the rest of the world since after Civil War by a cruel trick of nature. The Alabama River meanders around the town in a horseshoe shape creating a virtual island out of the community. Ferry service ran sporadically until the 1960s, when it stopped altogether. This physical isolation guaranteed that generations of Gee’s Benders would remain wretchedly poor and pretty well ignorant of the world at large—much less the New York art scene. Ironically, it was this very isolation that enabled the Gee’s Bend women to preserve their rich and beautiful tradition of quilting, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. In a further twist of irony, the quilts themselves have become the means by which the contemporary community has reconnected with the world beyond the bend.
At the de Young exhibition of the quilts last year, I vividly remember the moment when I turned the corner from the hallway into the first exhibit room. That first group of stunningly bold pieces took my breath away. I was dumbstruck. How could so traditional a folk form created by a group so isolated from the modern world appear so. . . well, strikingly modern? In their abstracted and geometric patterns, the quilts displayed an uncanny kinship to the 60s and 70s paintings of Frank Stella or maybe even Barnett Newman.
As I moved through the exhibition, the quilts offered me something that most of the work of Minimalists never has—quiet and intense joy. It’s the same emotional chord struck in me by a Rothko painting. Perhaps its that large blocks of color function as a long forgotten, but deeply-ingrained, juju on the human psyche. In their uniquely exuberant, yet dignified way, the quilts connected me the wonder and bliss of being human. I felt a kinship to the Gee’s Bend artists, even though I’d never met them. Ultimately, given the evidence of this beautiful handiwork, should it be such a surprise that despite, or perhaps because of, their separation from the world, the quilters of Gee’s Bend had a profound and universal connection to it?
In the early years of the last century, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the first truly emotive abstract painters, wrote: “the relationships in art are not necessarily the ones of outward form, but are founded on inner sympathy of meaning” (Concerning the Spiritual in Art). Kandinsky believed in the artist as a spiritual teacher. He strived hard to express the soul of nature and humanity in his work. I believe he would have found true “sympathy of meaning” in the works of Gee’s Bend.
Tip of the hat to John Sousa