Sewn with love - and sweat

Quilts made by descendants of slaves from Gee's Bend, Ala., confound the art world - and delight the eye.

On a bend in the Alabama River, where it veers so sharply as to practically turn in on itself, an extraordinary community grew up. From the women of this rural area - who were descendants of slaves - came a type of quiltmaking that is now heralded as an indigenous art form on a par with jazz.

The contemporary art world has been blindsided by the remarkable quilts of Gee's Bend, which are in their second year of touring major museums in the United States and are currently on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The quilts, with their exuberance and bold geometry, call to mind Matisse's cutouts or Mondrian's grids, although the women's designs come from their imaginations and in response to the quilts around them, not from books on art.

Their isolation, as well as a quirk of history, kept Gee's Bend an unusually cohesive place in the late 19th century. The land provided just enough sustenance so that sharecropping families stayed put. But what has emerged in the past few years is the equivalent of rock stardom for the quilters of Boykin, Ala., the town center of Gee's Bend. Since that day in 1998 when art historian Bill Arnett tracked down the Gee's Bend woman whose quilt had captivated him from a photograph, these women's lives haven't been the same.

And most wouldn't have it any other way. The quilts they originally made to keep their families warm have become a means of recognition and a source of income, although quilt production in Gee's Bend has slowed as the women enter their 70s and 80s, and fewer younger women are taking it up.

Today, 35 to 40 women quilt, with some of the older women piecing together their designs for the tops, to which other seamstresses add the backing. The quilts in the exhibition date from the early 1900s to the present day, with some of the finest examples dating to the '30s, '40s, and '50s.

As befits their celebrity status, the quilters travel by bus to each exhibition opening. They spread enormous goodwill by telling their stories, singing gospel tunes, and giving warm hugs - even to strangers. While they defer to curators to explain the aesthetics, they are thrilled to see their quilts hanging on a museum's walls, and grateful to God for bringing them to this point in their lives. Quilter Nettie Young speaks for many of them when she says these quilts "got many prayers and kindness in them."

In fact, the women of Gee's Bend see a certain justice in these developments: Their parents and grandparents picked cotton, but these quilts made largely of cotton cloth are helping lift residents out of a legacy of slavery.

It's a powerful message, and one that museumgoers absorb. Mr. Arnett is also determined that these quilts - and other examples of African-American art - lift viewers out of old prejudices and assumptions. He wants Americans to acknowledge this art as integral to their nation's cultural heritage rather than ghettoizing it as "black folk art."

Such art "doesn't change with art history, and it doesn't respond to art criticism," he says. That makes the quilts a puzzle to some people in the art world. But visitors respond to these abstract designs because they can relate to quilts, where they might be intimidated by other forms of modern art.

These quilts also connect museumgoers to the legacy of slavery in a visceral way. Looking at quilts made from worn denim work clothes - for example Lutisha Pettway's "Bars" quilt from 1950, made from ingeniously placed pant legs with darker spots where the jean pockets had been - one sees evidence of the toll that such intensive labor took on human beings.

It's hard at times to appreciate the women's artistry without being overwhelmed by emotional baggage. How does one see these quilts without feeling the weight of history? How does one handle the temptation to look down on other people who see merely pretty quilts, and not remnants of social injustice? Still, the overwhelming emotion is exhilaration from having discovered a previously unknown cache of authentic American art.

The women of Gee's Bend have remained remarkably grounded despite the high-flying adjectives applied to their quilts.

"These are women who have never had anything," says Mary McCarthy, who worked with the Freedom Quilting Bee, a collective set up in the 1960s, and whose family were among the few whites living in Gee's Bend from '67 to '85. "They're spiritual women who don't get [upset by] a lot of petty stuff, or it's so petty that they all laugh about it," says Ms. McCarthy. The women are so joyous about having opportunities to travel, meet people, and share their lives, that jealousy is far from their thoughts, she says.

In the same way that the women's voices weave over and through each other in song, the quilting appears to be a unifying force in their community. But it's far from being a static force. The changes wrought in Gee's Bend are subtle but palpable.

From the money the women were paid by Arnett and the Tinwood Alliance, an organization he founded to promote African-American and so-called "outsider art," the women have been able to add onto their modest houses, give a bit more to church, and help support families. This newfound autonomy has brought changes on the domestic front: Some of the men aren't so keen about all the attention the women are getting, says Arnett.

The women's approaches to quilting have also shifted, with some continuing to quilt what they like, when they like, and others looking to connect with buyers. As Gee's Bend has become known, "people send them cloth from all over the world," says Arnett, so they are working with nicer fabric than the worn denim and dress material of the past. The community's improved circumstances can't help being reflected in the quilt designs. As Arnett says of the women, "They aren't anthropological specimens." Some critics might argue that the newer quilts lack the poignancy of the older ones, but no one begrudges these women the better living conditions that quilting has helped bring about.

The Gee's Bend women take nothing for granted, and they see their talents as gifts from the Almighty. About their designs, they speak mainly in terms similar to Arlonzia Pettway when she says, "I lay down at night and think about it [a quilt she's working on]. I get up next morning and I think 'I need green or red.' " She doesn't analyze color combinations so much as intuit them.

Arnett tells people not to be fooled by such modesty. The women choose and reject colors the same way an artist does, he says, "no matter what they tell you."

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