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From Gee’s Bend to the Mennonites

"Basket Weave," by Nettie Jane Kennedy, corduroy quilt.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was writing about quilts, he rolled his eyes and said, "Oh, please, you've seen one, you've seen them all." It's a common reaction, and I know a lot of people feel this way, because every time I write about a quilt show, they tell me so. But they're wrong, and the Denver Art Museum has two exhibits that provide the perfect rejoinder to the "seen them all" claim and prove that quilts vary widely.

This diversity is only one reason that quilts were allowed through the back door of the fine arts a generation ago. I say the back door because they weren't made to be works of art in the first place. But the art world embraced quilts retroactively. Part of the context for this transformation was the rise of feminism, which led to a re-examination of the value of crafts such as quilting that were, by tradition, almost exclusively the work of women.

But I believe there's more to it than that. Originally created as bed covers, quilts are easy to associate with abstract paintings in size, shape, design and the use of color, especially when they're hung on walls and not draped over mattresses. Part of this relationship to painting is the enormous breath of aesthetic content that's possible within the category.

A pioneer of this new appreciation for the artistic value of quilts was Imelda DeGraw, longtime textile curator at the DAM. DeGraw, who retired more than a dozen years ago and who passed away last month at age 83, is responsible for making the museum a national center for quilt exhibitions.

Following in this tradition, in the Stanton Gallery in the DAM's Gio Ponti and James Sudler tower — romantically dubbed the North Building — is a big traveling exhibit, Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt. Upstairs is a mini-show, Amish & Mennonite Quilts. The works in Gee's Bend are as exuberant as those in Amish & Mennonite are restrained, and the two groups of textiles could be seen as opposites in every regard imaginable.

Gee's Bend is more significant because it is so much bigger, with nearly fifty quilts, and because it develops several ideas at once. The quilts themselves convey narratives about their creators and their way of life. And thanks to wall text, there's an easy-to-understand exploration of the development of the quilters' techniques.

Gee's Bend, Alabama, is extremely isolated, which is why these quilts are different from those made in other African-American communities. The argument is that the unusual quilt forms sprang up in the middle of nowhere because their makers were free from other influences. The town also has had a homogenous population, descended mostly from the slaves of the Pettway plantation. In a way, then, these quilts provide a direct link to slavery — and back beyond that, into the mists of time to Africa. This may seem outlandish given the intervening centuries, but there is an obvious African aesthetic that survives, despite the fact that all of these quilts were made in the past eighty years.

The show was put together by curator Alvia Wardlaw for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Tinwood Alliance, a foundation started by William Arnett and dedicated to supporting African-American arts. All of the quilts are from the Tinwood collection; Arnett headed up the show's organization and published an impressive hard-cover catalogue.

At the DAM, curator Alice Zrebiec recast the show to maximize the connection to abstract painting, laying it out so that works are grouped according to similarities in appearance. She begins with quilts made from well-used fabrics, including recycled denim from jeans, worn-out flannel from work shirts, and stained ticking from mattresses and pillows.

In "Blocks and Stripes," from the 1950s, the late Emma Lee Pettway Campbell cut long strips of old fabrics and minimally pieced them together into parallel lines (which are hung vertically on the wall). The use of old clothes was born of necessity, and the taste for incorporating the largest pieces possible the product of economy, but the resulting quilt features a mottled surface from the wear of the cloth and a boldness from the simple design that together bring the piece firmly into the realm of the fine arts — amazing when you realize that the quilter wasn't trying to be an artist.

There are several unforgettable work-clothes quilts, including another "Blocks and Stripes," this one by Lucy Mingo and also dating from the 1950s, and "Work-clothes Quilt," from 2002, made by Mary Lee Bendolph. This last quilt exemplifies a new phenomenon: With the increased interest in Gee's Bend quilts from the past and money garnered from the art world, new ones are now being produced, triggering a renaissance of what was until recently a dying art form.

It makes sense that Zrebiec started with the work-clothes quilts; because they don't reflect the architectonic character referred to in the exhibit's subtitle, The Architecture of the Quilt, she needed to get them out of the way. The most important pieced forms for the Gee's Bend quilters are called "house tops," essentially a square within squares that is a simplified version of the common "log cabin" piecing seen in many quilts. In truth, though, the shapes aren't actual squares, since the Gee's Bend quilters didn't use measurement devices, and the quilts are sometimes barely rectangular at all.

The huge gallery that unfolds beyond features the bold abstraction that comes from the house-tops pattern and its many variations. A very interesting group of quilts, done in corduroy, represents a link from the outside world to Gee's Bend back in the '70s. A civil rights project called the Freedom Quilting Bee had Sears supply bolts of fabric to African-American women in the South who would make pillows and other hand-sewn items out of them, which were then sold through the store. The colors — mustard yellow, avocado green and orange-y red, are right off the set of That '70s Show — yet these quilts resemble African textiles more than any of the others. Three of them, Nettie Jane Kennedy's "Basket Weave," Geraldine Westbrook's "Housetop variation," and "Roman Stripes variation," by Ma Willie Abrams, underscore the graphic power of the architectonic approach to fabric piecing, with the strong retro colors bolstering their boldness.

The final phase of the show has some of the weirdest and most theatrical quilts, including one made from worn out basketball uniforms laid next to one another, with the neck, leg and arm holes filled with fabric. They were done outside Gee's Bend, in an even smaller nearby settlement.

Exhibition-goers exit in the elevator lobby, making it super-convenient to zip up to the Neusteter Gallery on the sixth floor to catch Amish & Mennonite Quilts, which Zrebiec put together herself. These quilts, originally assembled by Henry and Jill Barber and now in the DAM's collection, were also created in ethnically homogenous towns that were isolated culturally, if not physically, from their neighbors. But the quilts couldn't be more different from the Gee's Bend ones. Technically, they are precise, with rigidly straight lines and fanatically even stitching, characteristics not seen at all in the Gee's Bend quilts. And the fabrics used by the Amish and the Mennonite quilters are finer and were new when they were cut, sewn and pieced.

An even more emphatic difference is the deep, rich colors used, even in one intended for a child, such as "Nine Patch in Diamond," an anonymously made Black Top Amish crib cover that's done in green, sky blue, rose, purple and other shades. It's like a pattern painting, and yet it was done in the 1930s, before the first of those were even thought up.

The painting-ness of quilts is especially profoundly felt when they are assembled for exhibits, making the art-ness of them undeniable. I dare you to walk into either of these DAM quilt exhibits and come to any other conclusion.


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