Reprinted from The Harlem Times February 22, 2003
Freedom and Order:
The Quilt Masterpieces of Gee's Bend
By Alice Bernstein
I'm very glad to tell about a thrilling course conducted by Aesthetic Realism teacher of art, Marcia Rackow, "The Visual Arts and the Opposites." In this museum/gallery class, the art of the world is studied from the masters at the Met, treasures of African art, to the latest work in Chelsea -- based on the great principle stated by Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."
The class I tell of took place at the Whitney Museum exhibition "Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts" (opening at the Mobile Museum in Alabama, June 14th) -- seventy quilts made from the 1920s - 1990s. These quilts, astounding in their variety and ingenuity, were made by descendants of slaves in rural Gee's Bend, Alabama. They are described by one critic as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." They came to national attention with the Freedom Quilting Bee, a cooperative arising from the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and were sold at Bloomingdale's and Saks, providing income for the quiltmakers. But interest waned and they were largely forgotten. In the 1990s, art collector William Arnett and his family, rediscovered them. Then, together with curators, patrons and others with a large respect for African-American culture, the present exhibition was first organized by the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. After the Whitney, it will continue to tour museums in the U.S.
"H" Variation 1971
88 X 77 inches
Ms. Rackow gave a brief history of the African-American women who made the quilts, and whose families were tenant farmers on the former Pettway plantation. Many are named Pettway. Most grew up in log cabins with walls covered with newspapers and magazines to keep out wind and cold. Here quiltmaking, handed down over four generations, was a necessity of life, using old, worn-out clothes, remnants, cotton sheets and feed sacks. In the show's moving documentary video, women tell how nothing was thrown away no clothing, no food. "There were no extras," said one woman, "We were so poor, you couldn't imagine it." Another spoke of walking many miles a day working in the fields.
Yet in the midst of misfortune and pain they made these beautiful quilts. All art, Eli Siegel was the philosopher to explain, arises from the deepest desire in every person: "to like the world honestly." We saw stirring evidence for this as Ms. Rackow discussed the designs and technique of many quilts. "Out of a life of great hardship," she said, "these women show the indomitable desire to like the world, give form to it beautiful form."
Shelly Zegart and Paul Arnett, two of the persons instrumental in organizing this show, write: "The Bend quiltmakers have been guided by a faith in personal vision; most of them start with basic forms and head off their way' with unexpected patterns, unusual colors and surprising rhythms."
Marcia Rackow read these questions about Freedom and Order from Eli Siegel's historic Fifteen Questions, "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? ": "Does every instance of beauty in nature and beauty as the artist presents it have something unrestricted, unexpected, uncontrolled? and does this beautiful thing in nature or beautiful thing coming from the artist's mind have, too, something accurate, sensible, logically justifiable, which can be called order?" Said Ms. Rackow, "There is a terrific sense of symmetry and order in the quilts, and also something very unexpected, free, even mischievous."
We looked first at Arcola Pettway's "Lazy Gal" Variation 1976, a Bicentennial quilt composed like an American flag a surprising drama in corduroy stripes of intense, vibrant colors and also cool colors. While the pattern is regular - horizontal bands of stripes, she pointed to the subtle and unexpected color combinations. For instance, one dark blue horizontal strip next to the brown is restful, but next to red it vibrates.
"There is," she said, "a true spirit of independence in the way the women quilted." This was visually evident. There is a variety of patterns, Chinese Coins, Flying Geese, Housetop, and Lazy Gal, which I liked very much; yet each quiltmaker's work is unique. Annie Mae Young said: "I never did like the book patterns....I like big pieces and long strips. However I get them, that's how I used them. I work it out, study the way to make it....You find the colors and the shapes and certain fabrics that work out right."
Annie Mae Young
Blocks and Strips c. 1970
82 x 80 inches
Annie Mae Young
"Work Clothes quilt" 1976
Loretta Pettway's "Medallion" (1960), made of synthetic knit and cotton sacking material is one of the most dramatic and beautiful. Said Ms. Rackow, "It looks so modern in its design. On a black background there is a narrow white rectangular border -- very simple, with a rectangular shape in the center. The white band is wild -- it doesn't follow the outside shape but curves and dances in space. There are curving rows of white stitching on the black, like tiny stars in the night."
Center medallion quilt with black and white frames, c. 1960
87 x 70 inches
"The rectangular shape in the center," she pointed out, "is created by two columns of lively colored stripes - vertical on the left, horizontal on the right. Lavender, pale green, orange, bright red and black, are in a free, vibrant relation. There is an optical effect of almost opposite colors: lavender and orange and the sweetness and acidity of lavender again with green. There's a terrific interplay of surface and depth: we go into darkness and emerge from it. It is very orderly and symmetrical, but also wonderfully mischievous: the shapes are not quite rectangular, and the stripes are uneven and curve in space. The regular is irregular, in motion. It is an amazing work."
Jessie T. Pettway
"Bars and strings-pieced column" (detail) 1950's
95 x 76 inches
Said Ms. Rackow, "The women who made these quilts came to expression that shows the desire for aesthetics in the human spirit. These quilts, in their form and beauty, are an implicit criticism of the brutal economic and racial injustice these women endured." Aesthetic Realism teaches that we all have a choice when we see something in the world or a person we feel is bad or unjust we will use it either for contempt or respect. Good freedom is critical, in the way things are shaken up, in behalf of respect. That is what we see in these beautiful quilts!
I was moved to tears by the last work discussed: Lutisha Pettway's "Bars," 1950, denim and cotton 80x84 inches. A memorial to her husband who died, it is made from his only possessions: work clothes. The worn out, faded areas, the bleach stains, the dark places where pockets and cuffs were removed, become elements of a large design. Nine vertical columns of pant legs and sleeves, patches filling out holes, and here and there a syncopated horizontal band -- all make for a tremendously alive feeling: a oneness of presence and unbearable absence. Through the energetic rhythms of fabric, what emerges from the worn cloth is something that puts together deep emotion and abstract design.
This class brought to my mind these lines from Eli Siegel's poem, "Let the Seeing Go On," which I see as standing for the Gee's Bend artists and their quilts:
Take worn and tattered something
And show it, too, unworn, untattered, unimpeached;
Marcia Rackow, a consultant on the faculty of the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation, began teaching "The Visual Arts and the Opposites" in 1974. She has written widely on world art, including "Wonder and Matter-of-Fact Meet; or, The Imagination of Beatrix Potter (Journal of the Print World, 2002). Ms. Rackow and Dr. Arnold Perey (teacher of "Aesthetic Realism and Anthropology") are pioneers in presenting art as a means of understanding and ending racism. Their groundbreaking talk, "The Art of the World and Justice to People," was given at last year's conference of the International Society for Education through Art (InSEA), a non-governmental organization originating with UNESCO. To learn more, contact the Aesthetic Realism Foundation at (212) 777-4490 http:/www.AestheticRealism.org