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.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.