I’ve been following, if not commenting on, the discussions on blogs and their usefulness to a community of artists. And that led me to thinking about communities of artists.
All kinds of communities of artists have existed — ateliers of the Renaissance, –the academies of art — museum schools where students sat on the floor drawing ancient scuptures– the artists who rebelled against the academy in Paris– the Group of Seven took on Emily Carr in the late 1920’s — the New York School whose members drank together at bars, married, divorced, remarried each other– well you get the idea — art camps, colonies, ateliers, workshops, studio spaces, hanging with artists — all comprise community. And now we have the internet, adding another element to the possibility of community.
One of the most fascinating communities of artists is that of the black women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, whose quilted art was exhibited in Houston and then at the Whitney in 2002. [Michael] Kimmelman in the New York Times November 29, 2002 regarded the exhibit as
“..Some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee (if you think I’m wildly exaggerating, see the show) arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South in the form of women, descendants of slaves when Gee’s Bend was a plantation. These women, closely bound by family and custom (many Benders bear the slaveowner’s name, Pettway), spent their precious spare time — while not rearing children, chopping wood, hauling water and plowing fields — splicing scraps of old cloth to make robust objects of amazingly refined, eccentric abstract designs. The best of these designs, unusually minimalist and spare, are so eye-poppingly gorgeous that it’s hard to know how to begin to account for them. But then, good art can never be fully accounted for, just described.” (as quoted on the website of Shelly Zegart)
It would take a book (it has taken books!) to explore the elements of this isolated black culture, impinged upon only occasionally by outside elements and then left behind, abandoned to their own self-sufficient ways. The community is surrounded by a big bend on a river, and was part of the southern slavery and then sharecropper system (with absentee landowners) until the 1930’s. The Roosevelt years saw some federal programs going through the area in the 1930’s. They made loans that helped people be more independent of local white landowners, but that program was discontinued in the 1940’s. Martin Luther King appeared in the 60’s, and the Gee’s Bend people joined in the Civil Rights marches and attempts to vote. At the same time and in part because of the Civil Rights movement taking note of the community, the women of a nearby community, along with some of the Gee’s Bend women, were launched into a folk art business, selling textile work in high end New York establishments, turning out fairly banal home dec work designed by others, through a coop managed by a white woman. That fad passed and another period of isolation occurred, enhanced by the loss of the ferry that linked them to the only town nearby (Camden) — the ferry was stopped when King encouraged the people of Gee’s Bend to vote in the county elections. The Gee’s Bend quilts were “rediscovered” in the 1990’s, when the quilted art community had grown its own strong culture.
What is clear when you see exhibits of the Gee’s Bend art is that the isolation and community are part of amazing individual comprehensions of how to make visual beauty.
The Gee’s Bend women, according to William and Paul Arnett (in The Quilts of Gee’s Bend) were “steeped in strings and scraps –leading toward techniques of pure abstraction as the foundation of their talent and attitude.” The families of women were strong centers of action, and daughters were expected to learn to make quilts. Some learned to make art while making quilts.
This community evolved its art out of its necessity, proving (as if we needed proof) that the aesthetic is a fully human function. But two other things about the Gee’s Bend work occurs to me. One is that the isolation of this community and its poverty and need to make-do stretched its artists beyond what more fully integrated communities with more money have achieved in the same field. The other thing that delights me is that these are fully abstract artists, designing with all the boldness and clarity of vision that we find in the abstract expressionists, but without any input from the “modern” world. It is a confirmation that abstraction is an art form as closely tied to the human need for expression and aesthetic outlet as any religious icon or painting of a sunset.
A large number of images of the original exhibit can be found on the Gee’s Bend Quilt website.(The two images above are actually prints of more contemporary works from the community; the original exhibit used works primarily from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s). I would urge you to look at the scope of these art works, done originally as functional items of home comfort, made by women who lived near one another, knew each other intimately (one artist identifies quilt makers by the smell of the individual quilts), taught one another, passed on traditions and ideas about beauty. This art confirms my deepest held ideas about varieties of aesthetics contained within the human psyche. It also contributes further to our understanding of artistic communities.
A couple more notes for those interested: Richard Kalina, in Art in America, Oct 2003, has a long and glowing review of the art in the exhibit: He says “It is clear that Gee’s Bend quilters were neither insular visionaries pursuing idiosyncratic personal paths, nor were they simply the skilled passers-on of traditional forms. Instead, they were like other artists of their time, adept, committed practitioners engaged in a measured and ongoing esthetic give-and-take.”
Alicia Carroll, at an Auburn University symposium, says,
“Formed at the close of the twentieth century, the exhibit was curated during the epoch-making moment of violence in the new century’s America; it reached New York, a city both in recovery and in deep reflection and mourning over the events of September 11th 2001. The Whitney became a public space to grieve for private and public loss and to celebrate individual and communal American achievement. The exhibit’s rhetoric implements elegiac language to construct national longings and anxieties over both recovery and loss. Received as survivors, the tattered and faded quilts speak to an American future that is far less optimistic than ever before. As the show travels in its “national” tour from one American city to another, it enters the “circuit of culture” in which its production enters into its exhibition and consumption in a dizzying exchange of meanings. The quilts have become national icons; what words will we ascribe to their eloquent silences? And what stories will be displaced in their new narrative category as apocalyptic millennial art? What new contexts will they meet and, in short, what are the consequences of subsuming Alabama quilts into a narrative of American elegy?
Some interesting questions arise, however, when we think about the art of Gee’s Bend. Clearly some of the quilts are art; some are nice-looking functional work; some are not artistic at all. The exhibit curators culled out the best of the work, leaving lots of what was available un-exhibited. And, I am told that even some of the things exhibited lately in “The Architecture of…” exhibit isn’t really gallery-worthy.
But everyone, myself included, talks about the “Gee’s Bend quilts.” Not about a singular artist (although the quilted art pieces themselves are attributed to individual women who are credited with the art) or a singular work. Even the styles, within the “piece” format of the art, vary greatly. And yet, because the community is so strong (and because it has a mythical quality for the rest of the US) it’s “Gee’s Bend art” not Loretta Pettway’s or Mary Lee Bendolph’s work.
Is this a flaw in the way we are thinking about a body of work coming out of a single community? Or is the flaw in our own ego-centric, individualized idea of how art is created and what it is worth?