Monday, September 13, 2021

A Pilgrimage

A friend told me that the Baltimore Museum of Art was hosting an exhibit of Gee's Bend quilts, and I knew I needed to see these quilts in person. This is my third fall with the big kids' sports laid over top of the garden and preserving, laid on top of regular family life which keeps me hopping to begin with. I'm in survival mode right now, but I was determined to see these quilts. I did!

I love these quilts for their beauty and seeing the artistic decisions the quilters made in the urgent utility of using what they had and keeping their families warm.

They remind me of the wholly practical approach my Grandma Weaver had. No time for fussy stitches, matching corners, purchasing coordinating fabric or enough fabric so the whole quilt was the same. That pragmatism is beautiful to me on its own. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." 

The exhibit notes also explained how the Gee's Bend quilters received Martin Luther King Junior in their isolated community three weeks before "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama, and how they leveraged their quilting fame for racial justice and voting rights after that. And now I connect to the quilts through that lens, too. After George Floyd's murder in May 2020, I began a personal journey of education and activism regarding systemic racism. 

I have mixed feelings about the Gee's Bend quilts (and Amish quilts) being displayed in art museums and called art. Certainly I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and these quilts are stunning. However, I think of art as made to BE ART. The people who make art think of themselves as artists. They should get paid for that and recognized as artists, and note "artist" as profession when they fill in that line. The rest of us who make beautiful things, accidentally or on purpose, I want respect for us, too. I'm quibbling with art museums being the highest standard of respect for beautiful things. 

It's similar to the mindset that truly beautiful rooms and homes are the ones showcased in magazines. I reject that - those places are often showcases that simply photograph well, not homes where people are happy, industrious, and engaged in life. 

How can we respect the quilters of Gee's Bend, the Amish quilters, the everyday quilters like me? We are often the homemakers whose unpaid work in running our homes and raising children and the like is not counted as economically significant or valuable. And the quilters of Gee's Bend have the added layers of poverty and Black skin as well. It's a lot easier to take the quilts from Gee's Bend and exhibit them in an art museum, to say they are "eye-poppingly gorgeous" (New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, 2002) than it is change attitudes towards poor Black female homemakers. 

 There were only five quilts in the exhibit. I stood in front of them and cried behind my mask (useful for that, isn't it?). And then I drove home and got out my own needle and thread again. 

15 comments:

  1. I love the direction of your thinking! It helps me explain why I have mixed feelings about any quilt museum. These pieces were usually made to be used, and as a quilter, that's what I want from my work. Don't hang it on a wall, USE it.

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    1. Yes! Maybe non-quilters get sad at the thought of those beautiful quilts worn to shreds? I don't know - it's a pretty high compliment to a quilt and its quilter to be used.

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  2. Just so good. Love hearing your thoughts.♥️

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  3. Oh Margo, thank you so much for this. I agree 100%, it’s so easy to admire something, anything, really. But to know the stories, to actually be moved to be different, to learn, to grow? Now that is a moving experience and someone’s creations were the catalyst. 💙

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    1. Love that perspective - the quilts are powerful creations!

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  4. Dearest, your experience and story are deeply moving. Keep on quilting and working for justice. And FYI, the tears are a necessary part of the journey.

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  5. Wonderful post. Yes women and others are undervalued. My grandma made quilts during the depression that were gorgeous (I have 2) and useful, made from flour sacks (I think). I see her sitting in dim light by an oil lamp quilting with tired eyes. She also gardened, saved foods, and was a seamstress for hire. I agree about "pretty homes" in photos. I'd rather see someone's busy home with real life, not a rich person's fancy home, especially the mtn home that sit empty most of the year. Thanks for the insight, lovely quilts.

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    1. How lovely that you have some of your grandma's quilts. So special.

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  6. Thank you for this post. I agree with you 100% about quilts in museums and about the ongoing scourge of systemic racism. All women suffer from entrenched patriarchy but none so much as women of color, and especially poor women of color. I love that you bring this to light in your post. We all have a lot of work to do to acknowledge and change this destructive dynamic.

    That these quilts are beautiful is secondary to their purpose - to keep family and friends warm. My own quilting practice is rooted in the poverty of my Appalachian forbears coal mining history. My grandmother and great-grandmother made quilts out of whatever scraps they could find. Some have beautiful patterns but most are random, colorful, cheerful warm blankets. We still have some of them.

    I have only seen pictures of the Gee's Bend quilts. I share your discomfort about 'art' giving them value. (Maybe the museums should display them on beds instead of walls!) I see a lot of quilts on Instagram but I am not interested in the 'perfect' ones. I am put off by pictures of sewing rooms with walls full of entire bolts of fabric. I prefer to see the chaotic, wildly colorful use of scraps to make a useful and beautiful blanket to be loved by a lucky recipient.

    Sorry to go on and on! I'll get off my soapbox now. :^)

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    1. We are on the same soapbox! :) Love your explanation of your family's quilting history and that you still have some of the quilts - getting ragged, I bet. Fascinating idea to get museums to display them on beds.. . . just had another idea: what if museums would lend the quilts out to people, like a library of quilts, so that you could experience the quilt at home, keeping you warm, feasting your eyes on it, as the maker intended? That would be a new kind of appreciation for quilts!!

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  7. As a great granddaughter who has quilts passed down, I will say that it is sad that few have survived because of the use of old clothes to make quilts. It is really all that my very poor great grandmothers had and they were only thinking of keeping their family warm and not that they would not last. The couple that I have are treasured.

    My daughter has a degree in fine art and she considers any medium to be art. This has always seemed odd to me but in art school they even did 'books' made of sheets of plywood!

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  8. Enjoyed this very thoughtful post Margo .

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  9. Ohhhhh, so much thought and history and beauty and reality inside those quilts. What a treasure to behold, I am sure. Pilgrimage seems the perfectly apt word, indeed. I had not heard of the Gee Bend Collective prior to this. That third one is my favorite. A tunnel of practical brightness. May I also say I thoroughly enjoy your phrase, "urgent utility." Very good. I've always thought I'd have liked your Grandma Weaver, anytime you've mentioned her. I can see why this quilt collection brings her to mind.

    A "good on you!" for seeing the horror of the George Floyd murder and using it as a catalyst. It was certainly eye opening for me, too. I have learned a lot...and feel I've only touched the tip of the iceberg.

    The art thing is interesting to ponder. I've never considered myself an artist and am always surprised when people use this term towards things I've made. I am certainly creative, but most of my creativity is channeled towards something with a practical function so...it doesn't seem like "art" to me.

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    1. Thanks, Beth. I am still chewing over the "art" designation - still thinking about what I consider art. . .

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I enjoy the conversation in the comments - thank you for that. I will answer your questions here in the comments. Please note that I don't want the world wide web to know my family's surnames and location.