THE QUILTS OF GEE’S BEND: Not Just Something to Cover Up With

Lynn:  Susan Goldman Rubin’s The Quilts of Gee’s Bend (2017) feels like the perfect book for this amazing time of women standing up and speaking up, marching for our rights, and claiming respect for who we are. Yes, the book is about the spectacularly beautiful quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, but it is also the story of the amazing women who created them. While showcasing the quilts, patterns, and variations, Rubin introduces readers to the history of this quietly heroic group. Descendants of slaves, they lived in an impoverished, small community, where women did what women everywhere have done in those circumstances: worked hard, made do, wasted nothing, and took care of their families the best they could. They also created art.

The Quilts of Gee's Bend by Susan Goldman Rubin

Rubin interviewed many of the Gee’s Bend quilters. These accounts provide a striking picture of the creative process and materials behind the quilts, and the evolution of their craft. It is also a warm and revealing story of the women coming together at night to work and to find sisterhood and joy. “You be in the house together, laughing and talking,” one remembered. “We were more blessed then.”

Like so many of the “domestic arts,” as they were called in my youth, quilts had little respect except as practical objects. It wasn’t until Bill and Matt Arnett brought national attention to these quilts with a 2002 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston that the art world began to recognize their extraordinary workmanship. Even the quilters themselves had regarded their work as “just something to cover up with.” Women’s work indeed! How deeply satisfying to see the history and sheer artistry of these truly gifted women celebrated so well in this book. Quilt on, sisters!

 

Cindy: I remember purchasing USPS commemorative postage stamps honoring these quiltmakers back in 2006, but I never knew much about the quilts themselves, the women, or the Gee’s Bend community. Leave it to Rubin to once again introduce me to new artwork in a beautiful package. I was especially intrigued by the women’s experiences quilting for Bloomingdale’s and their frustration at having to make everything uniform and perfect.

“In the Quilting Bee time, I started using patterns, but I shouldn’t have did it. It broke the ideas I had in my head,” recalls quilter Nettie Young. “I should have stayed with my own ideas.”

I also learned that they made corduroy rocking-chair cushions in the early 1970s for Sears, Roebuck & Company to sell through their catalogs. I had an orange corduroy bedrest of that vintage that looked just like the one in the catalog illustration on page 35 in this book. Could it have been made by these women? If you find yourself at the Met in NYC, be sure to see the Gee’s Bend Quilts they have on display, courtesy of a Souls Grown Deep Foundation gift.

In addition to the book’s bibliography, readers might be interested in one of Rubin’s earlier works. Art Against the Odds: From Slave Quilts to Prison Paintings (2004) has a chapter about quilts, including those from Gee’s Bend. The book’s opening quote from Whirligig (1998) by Paul Fleischman fits these women and their craft perfectly:

“Just look at your artwork. . . Only someone with a strong life force could possibly have created that.”

For those who want to try their hands at piecing together a quilt square…or nine, Rubin provides a pattern and directions as part of the back matter. Or, you can take Nettie’s advice and just use the ideas in your head and skip the pattern. It’s sure to be beautiful either way!

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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