Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Beautiful Patchwork

Yesterday I accompanied my dear friend Shonna to the Austin Museum of Art, where displayed in the gallery was an exhibit entitled, "The Quilts of Gees Bend." Upon hearing that we would be viewing a quilting exhibit, visions came to my mind of wild works of art in intricate detail, beautifully embroidered wedding rings and log cabins and floral extravaganzas. I have seen the quilt medium used as a canvas for creating scenes and find that mystifying, but this is not what I encountered.
Upon walking into the exhibit hall, there was a flat screen monitor to the right. A documentary of sorts was playing, in which a very colorful group of black women from Gees Bend, Alabama were giving their recountings of how and why quilts were made in their community. On the walls were some amazing asymmetrical quilts, pieced together from scraps of all kinds of fabrics, mostly all worn-out clothing. Amidst bits and pieces of work denim and corduroy and aprons were darned holes, spots of dirt scrubbed and bleached as much as they could be, leaving behind untold stories of how these flaws and stains came to be. Nothing was thrown away - if the item became too worn and damaged to continue its life as a piece of clothing, it was cut and torn into strips or squares, and sewn into quilts for bedcoverings. In the cold of winter, beds were covered with many layers of quilts for warmth, or hung over doors and windows to keep out the drafty cold air. With the history these rough folky works of utilitarian art embodied, they were breathtaking. Not in the traditional, sparkling clean, precisely and finely detailed way, but in the fabric-of-life way. I could close my eyes listening to the women in the documentary sing, in Gees Bend, Alabama, and envision scuffling in my worn-out work boots along a gravel road between two fields of cotton or tobacco. With a bright blue sky and warm humid afternoon upon me, the sounds of low woman singing drift to my ears. I look to the side and see a droopy roofed clapboard house with so little paint remaining on the wood, I can barely tell what color it once was. The smell of honey and biscuits wafts out the front door, and the breeze blows it languidly around my face and into my nose. The same breeze is gently moving and drying four newly quilted and washed quilts hung out on a makeshift line spanning between the house and an old oak tree to the side. They are each different, from four different families, with the latest scraps and bits from the house. It evokes a sense of "down home" and the deep South. I want to curl up on the alfalfa grass with a book and one of these treasures.
These women were so humble, so of the earth, and so inspiring. They live their lives, piecing together quilt tops in their spare time, then quilting the tops into blankets with their women friends, singing hymns and folksongs that possibly hearken back to the days of slavery in the South. Or stopping to relay the latest news from a child who has moved away. Their female children and grandchildren play under the quilts and watch the needles go in and out of the fabric, knowing one day they would make their own quilts as a rite of passage.
Some of the quilts were turned into prints by a printing house in Berkeley, CA, though for what purpose other than art, I am not sure. But all of them were beautiful and unique in their way.
I was mesmerized and inspired. I can sew, especially if not constrained by the requirement that something be perfectly straight. How beautiful would it be, to have a quilt that contained bits and pieces of my own family's history and life? Bits of Hootie's baby clothing that no longer fits, and might never be worn again by anyone? Old jeans, ripped in the knees and stained with grass from gardening, or paint from freshening up an old desk, old tea towels and dishcloths used as potholders and rustic old bowl dryers over the years? I think it would be lovely.
What has inspired you lately?

1 comment:

mark robbins said...

I know Kathy Ireland has teamed up with the ladies from the Gee's Bend and has incorporated their designs into lamps, rugs and tons of other stuff. I'm looking to see if she has made any. Gee's Bend clothes if anyone know where to find them