Every now and then, the art establishment opens its doors to outsiders: those whose talent is not the product of formal schooling or the desire for praise, and whose work is all the more remarkable for it. So it is with the quilt makers of a small community in Alabama, who became famous in the USA around the turn of the century after the great touring exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.
Long before they hung in museums and appeared on U.S. stamps, these quilts heated uninsulated homes in the village of Gee’s Bend along the river. The earliest dates from the 1920s, although the tradition is probably much older. Sally Mae Pettway Mixon, who made this quilt in 2003, shares the Pettway name with many of her neighbors because they are all descended from the addicted people who once worked Mark H Pettway’s cotton plantation.
Extreme poverty continued long after abolition. Gee’s Bend has been identified by Franklin D Roosevelt’s administration as one of the poorest places in the United States. In the leanest years, quilts were often made of nothing more than old work clothes, their patterns consisting of judiciously placed patches of sun-blur.
The quilters’ fame comes from the exuberant artistry with which they transformed these materials into large compositions that are improvisational, abstract and often a bit peculiar. Critics reacted with excitement to the exhibition by seeing how the syncopated rhythms of modern art are repeated – and perhaps thus empowered – by people who work completely outside its traditions.
There was also an impulse to exoticize. “Imagine Matisse and Klee. . . which does not originate from the scarce Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South, ”wrote Michael Kimmelman, critic of The New York Times in 2002. He rated the quilts as “one of the most miraculous works of modern art that America has ever produced.”
The quilters point out that their daring designs were often born out of necessity because a scarcity of time and materials made fine patterns unsustainable. Some of the most award-winning quilts were originally intended as invisible layers on beds, covered with more conventional pretty throws.
As a child, Pettway Mixon threaded needles and cut pieces for her mother’s quilts. She turned away from the craft as a young adult and only returned when she heard it finds an appreciative – and affluent – audience. Today, this quilt made from old skirts and blouses hangs proudly in the Blanton Museum of Art.