Dual local exhibits examine the Gee’s Bend quilts through prints

ART MEETS CRAFT: Gee's Bend quilter Mary Lee Bendolph signs a print. “We ended up looking at the printmaking process itself and reflecting on the ‘art-versus-craft’ debates that these quilts stirred up by being in museums in the first place,” says exhibit co-curator Marilyn Zapf. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College
ART MEETS CRAFT: Gee's Bend quilter Mary Lee Bendolph signs a print. “We ended up looking at the printmaking process itself and reflecting on the ‘art-versus-craft’ debates that these quilts stirred up by being in museums in the first place,” says exhibit co-curator Marilyn Zapf. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College

It’s been 12 years since the art world first heard about Boykin, Ala. — better known as Gee’s Bend.

This small, unincorporated community tucked deep within a river bend is home to the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective, a multigenerational group of African-American women made famous by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ 2002 show The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. In the years since, these quilts have become a sort of crown jewel of Southern vernacular art. Much of that acclaim is due to a series of exhibits spotlighting the quilts, framed by the artists’ rural backgrounds.

But while that storied backdrop helped catapult the quilts and their makers into the international limelight, it also overemphasized the quilts’ functional utility at the expense of the artists’ creative intentions. This, in turn, fostered a persistent uncertainty over whether these women ever even saw themselves as artists.

That notion, though, is put to rest in Gee’s Bend: From Quilts to Prints, a new dual-site exhibit organized by The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design and Warren Wilson College. They hold openings on Fridays, Sept. 5 and Sept. 19, respectively.

“This definitely is an answer to that,” says Warren Wilson art professor Julie Levin-Caro, who co-curated the displays with Marilyn Zapf, the center’s assistant director. “It shows not only that some of the women have continued to make the quilts outside of the need but that they’ve even developed it beyond, into another medium.”

Simply put, adds Zapf, “this exhibition is about translation” — from one medium to the next and from one way of thinking to another.

From Gee’s Bend to Berkeley

As the exhibit’s name suggests, prints — not quilts — take center stage. More than 25 etchings and serigraphs are featured, alongside nine quilts made by Gee’s Bend artists Louisiana P. Bendolph, Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Bennett and Loretta Pettway. The works are evenly divided between Warren Wilson’s Elizabeth Holden Gallery and the center’s Benchspace Gallery and Workshop.

The prints range in size from 24-inch squares to massive rectangular works more than 4 feet wide. They’re accompanied by several maquettes (small-scale models used to test the design) and assorted printmaking paraphernalia: copper plates, brushes and hand tools. “The prints have been made since 2005,” says Caro. “They’ve only been shown in one major exhibition, Gee’s Bend and the Architecture of the Quilt, which was in 2006.” Several are on view for the first time, having been produced mere weeks ago at the Paulson Bott Press in Berkeley, Calif., where the artists have periodically traveled while working on the project over the past nine years.

Matt Arnett and his father, Bill Arnett, first met the Gee’s Bend artists in 1998. And by the mid-2000s, Matt was looking for a way to introduce some of the quilters to other mediums. “Despite the wonderful reviews The Quilts of Gee’s Bend received, there was still this idea among some viewers that the brilliance of the quilts, which almost no one disputed, was somehow lucky or accidental,” he says. “I started wondering what might happen if the women tried other creative outlets.” So he recruited a handful of Gee’s Bend artists for a multiyear printmaking project aimed at further developing the collective’s aesthetic.

First, though, they had to find the right press. “After doing a lot of research about printing techniques and styles, good fortune would play a major part in the process,” says Arnett.

Meanwhile, Pam Paulson, the owner of the Berkeley press, was fresh off viewing a Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York. Interested in applying those design motifs to printmaking, Paulson was eager to connect with the quilters.

Arnett’s moment of good fortune came over dinner one night with his friend Radcliffe Bailey, an artist with a long-standing connection to the Paulson Bott Press. After that, says Bennett, “Matt asked [us] to consider the possibility of going to Paulson Press. I was really nervous: This was very different than making quilts.” But a few phone calls and several weeks later, Arnett headed to California with Louisiana and Mary Lee Bendolph. Bennett and Pettway followed later.

Quilts in context

The process proved to be much like the quilting that Bennett and the other artists had been doing their entire lives, only on a much smaller scale. The artists gathered fabrics from Berkeley thrift stores, then created fabric maquettes, which look like miniature quilts. “I go about my quilting the same as before,” says Bennett. “I like to add pieces that are different shapes, sizes and sometimes just one color that makes it pop.”

The maquettes were then pressed into copper etching plates covered with a soft-ground medium that visually transferred the textures, stitching and cloth layering. “The end products are both breathtaking pieces,” Bennett says.

Although the prints are significantly smaller than their 3-D predecessors, they harness the same abstract, improvised patterning as the “Housetop,” “Bricklayer” and “Work Clothes” quilts. But unlike the quilts, says Caro, the prints’ “only function is within the world of contemporary art.”

“We were looking at these artists and how their particular vision and design sensibility translated from quiltmaking to this print project,” says Zapf. “We ended up looking at the printmaking process itself and reflecting on the art vs. craft debates that these quilts stirred up by being in museums in the first place.”

When the artists stepped away from the quilts’ functional basis and into the 2-D aesthetic of printing, she says, they exchanged the craftsman label for that of artist. What’s more, the prints further entrench the works and the Gee’s Bend aesthetic into a fine arts setting. And it’s those prints, Caro and Zapf say, that will enable gallerygoers to look beyond function and craft and see these pieces in a new light: as intentional fine art. “There’s never been an exhibition that focused on the relationship of the two,” says Caro.

Arnett agrees: “I think that once people see the prints, which are obviously made as art rather than something with a utilitarian purpose, they will see the quilts differently.”

WHAT: Gee’s Bend: From Quilts to Prints

WHERE: Warren Wilson College, warren-wilson.edu; and The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design, craftcreativitydesign.org

WHEN: CCCD: opening reception Friday, Sept. 5, 5:30-7:30, show runs through Jan. 10, 2015. WWC: opening reception Friday, Sept. 19, 5:30-7:30, show runs through Dec. 20.

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About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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