Thursday, March 17, 2005

Close to Nowhere
By Linda Jones

Overdose on quilting?

Saturday, my quilt guild — The Piecemakers of Oxford — went to see the exhibit “Gee’s Bend Quilts” at the Brooks Art Gallery in Memphis, Tenn. (The Saturday before Jane and I had gone to MSU in Starkville for a quilt seminar. Next Saturday, there’s a quilt exhibit I’d like to go see in Iuka.)

Gee’s Bend was totally, completely different from any other quilt exhibit Jane and I have ever gone to before. And the quilts were totally, completely different from any I’d ever seen before.

As a new “convert” to quilting, I’m spending a lot of time learning how to do it “right.” How to make tiny stitches and make sure all my corners and points, etc. line up correctly (with military precision almost).

The quilts from Gee’s Bend were not “right” by the way I’m learning. The women who had quilted these didn’t belong to a quilt guild. They didn’t spend an entire evening trying to get one four-inch square perfectly square.

Gee’s Bend is a small community in Alabama — tucked into a bend of the Alabama River — it’s almost an island and almost completely isolated.

During the early 1930s until the 1990s, the ladies of Gee’s Bend quilted with whatever they had, as quickly as they could.

Many of the quilts are made with old, stained work clothes. There are no discernible “patterns” although a quilter’s eye sees log cabin patches throughout the exhibit.

The quilts were all hand done and mostly quilted in the quilter’s lap — no frames of any kind.

The stitches aren’t tiny, the fabric is strange and sometimes, a sheet is all the backing the quilts have. One had material that our group of quilters couldn’t even figure out what it was.

Yet here these quilts are — hung in a prestigious museum and traveling all over the country for people to look at.

The colors are bright and the quilts almost sing with vitality. I could envision some of them covering the quilters’ families during the winter or maybe hung on the walls to keep the wind out.

At MSU, one of the researchers quoted a few lines about quilters in the early 1800s. Jane quoted it at the exhibit and gave everyone in the room goosebumps — “They made their quilts as fast as they could to keep their families from freezing. They made their quilts as beautiful as they could to keep their hearts from breaking.”

The quilts will be on display at the Brooks Museum until May 8. Whether you quilt or not, they tell a powerful story about life in the South.

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