The Quilting Tradition of Gee’s Bend

This article is an excerpt from the museum magazine, VMFA, an exclusive benefit for museum members.

See works from the Gee’s Bend quilters on display in the Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South exhibition.

Valerie Cassel Oliver, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, began studying African American quilts in the early 1990s when writing her master’s thesis at Howard University. She was interested in recognizing how aesthetics rooted in West Africa were transplanted with enslaved Africans in the American South, especially through material culture, like the quilt.

Some 25 years later, when Cassel Oliver was charged with selecting objects from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation for the museum’s collection, she drew on that scholarship. In determining which 34 works to bring to Richmond, she chose 13 quilts from Gee’s Bend, a remote community in Alabama, where generations of women—descendants of enslaved people—have been producing quilts for more than a century. The art of quiltmaking was handed down through the female members of the families who lived there, and while not formally taught, these women imbue an aesthetic in the work that is on par with artists who are academically trained.

After reviewing some of the objects available from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation online, she traveled to Atlanta to see the objects firsthand. Ainslie Harrison, Assistant Objects Conservator, accompanied her to look at the condition of the objects. “It was important to assemble a strong and cohesive cache of works,” Cassel Oliver notes. “They had to be visually engaging and speak to the rich history of Gee’s Bend.”

The 13 quilts she ultimately selected were made from 1945 until as recently as 2006. Six of the quilts are what are known as the Sears Roebuck & Co. quilts and were produced in the 1970s. During this time, some of the women in Gee’s Bend worked at the Freedom Quilting Cooperative in nearby Alberta. The cooperative was contracted by Sears to produce corduroy pillow covers in standard designs that used colors such as avocado, gold, and cherry red. The wide-wale cotton corduroy had a “richness,” Cassel Oliver says. “Even with its limited palette, the quilters created an extraordinary repertoire of objects,” she adds.

Sewing corduroy pillows for Sears employed a repetitive process that allowed little room for creativity, but the women working there took leftover scraps of fabric home to Gee’s Bend, where the opulent material was used in more experimental ways. Wonderful examples of work in corduroy were selected from Linda Diane Bennett and Ruth Kennedy, as well as multiple generations of Pettways. While some of these quilters worked on the Sears Roebuck initiative, others used scraps and remainders offered to them, creating quilts with a vibrant array of patterns and compositions. “These works,” writes Cassel Oliver in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, “draw deeply upon an aesthetic of improvisation.” She points to Housetop, a fractured medallion variation by Rita Mae Pettway, as one of the most dramatic of the Sears Roebuck quilts, highlighting its “bold colors and the tension of its misaligned composition.”

The quilts in the exhibition display a similar artistic achievement, with some works that lean toward a more architectural style and others that play with geometry, colors, and patterns.

To emphasize how the Gee’s Bend quilts are aligned with, or speak to works that are now in the museum’s modern and contemporary collection, Cassel Oliver selected “Housetop” single-block “Courthouse Steps” variation by Jennie Pettway to be featured, not in the Evans Court Galleries with the others in the exhibition, but in the Minimalist room in the Lewis 20th-Century Galleries. Made in 1945, the work predates Minimalism by nearly two decades, Cassel Oliver notes. “But it draws upon simple geometry,” she says. “Unlike more modern, machine-made works, the hand is at play here. The quilt is not in perfect symmetry, making it a forebear to Minimalism.”

In the catalogue, Cassel Oliver credits a number of curators and scholars—including William Arnett, who amassed the collection now under the rubric of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation—for raising an awareness and visibility to these art forms, as well as capturing the stories of the artists who made them. “Through a wave of new initiatives and exhibitions these works now are being established in their rightful place in the art historical canon,” she says.

About VMFA, the magazine
The museum publishes its official magazine, VMFA, three times each year and mails copies exclusively to museum members. The magazine features behind-the-scenes looks at exhibitions, interviews with curators, community engagement news, updates on facility improvements, and previews of what’s to come. Along with this benefit, members of all levels enjoy free exhibition admission, free parking, discounts at the shop and cafe, and more. Become a member today.

Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South is on view through November 17, 2019. . The exhibition is FREE. No tickets required. The exhibition is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

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