I’ve been working non-stop on the curriculum for the art class that I’m teaching: when it’s done, I’ll post it up here on the blog as a free printable. It’s a LOT of stuff. I’m loving the ability to share different artists that most people have never heard of, and this one is no exception. These, rather – because this is a community of artists: the Gee’s Bend Quilters’ Collective.
Their story is one of the rags-to-riches, heartwarming stories of the art world. Until 1998 or so, very few people had heard of Gee’s Bend Quilts. A photograph of one of the quilts prompted an art collector (William Arnett) to search for the quilts and the quilters. He found them at Gee’s Bend: a little river-locked farming community with a history that involves a former plantation, a hardscrabble life, a money-hungry loan collector, and a dam and reservoir that flooded most of the good farmland.
For generations, Gee’s Bend quilters has crafted quilts to keep their families warm, but with a distinct, interesting, modern style not usually found among quilters. Like many quilters throughout history, Gee’s Bend quilters often used worn-out clothes or feed sacks to craft their quilts, but Gee’s Bend quilters did it with style. It’s a lively, improvisational style more like painting than quilting. It’s functional art: art designed to use, and to brighten lives and houses with a little beauty.
Arnett was influential in launching the quilters into the art world, starting with their first major exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston TX. The quilters went on to have exhibits all over the world, with art critics comparing their work to modern artists like Matisse and Klee. Their work has been featured on a stamp, in a documentary, and even a children’s book that I highly recommend for young readers. We found a copy at our local library, and I’m blown away by the illustrations in this book and I recognized some of the quilts from my research on the project. (This link will take you to Amazon, please see my affiliate disclosure at the bottom of the page for more information.)
Today, the quilters continue to work as they always have. They formed a quilter’s collective to sell their quilts, and quilting is their passion as well as their job. As I learned more about the collective, I found out that the collective pools a share of each quilt’s sales to all collective members regardless of age or output – ensuring that retired quilters will still have a source of income. It gave me a bit of the warm fuzzies – how many artists do you know that voluntarily hand over a chunk of their earnings to their teachers and mentors? It’s an amazing way to live and work!
I love that the fame and steady quilting income allowed the quilters collective to expand and recapture their traditional art before it died out. Many of the quilters were growing old or retiring, and the younger generation was moving away from the small community in an attempt to find jobs. The fame of the quilts changed that: it allowed the masters of their craft to train and help the next generation to continue this almost lost art. It’s a great lesson in why we should support the arts – because if artists cannot work, then we lose so much richness, beauty, tradition, and wonder from our lives.
On a side note, if you happen to live in Alabama close to Gee’s Bend, the collective does talks, tours, and demonstrations of quilting. Field trip! Their website and Facebook page are not very active, but do have some contact information. Most tourist websites recommend calling first before going, as the quilters do not have a set schedule. According to some of the articles that I read, the Gee’s Bend (Boykin) community is eager to draw tourism to their area and welcomes visitors.