Cloth that sings

The African-American quilters of Alabama are spiritual-minded.

Mar 12, 2003 at 12:00 am

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend
Beardsley, Arnett, Arnett & Livingston
Tinwood Books, $45, 190 pp.


A quilt ain’t nothing but a sandwich — by definition, a bedcovering made of two layers of fabric with a layer in between and stitched together. Most often the top layer has a decorative design.

The remarkable quilts pictured on these pages were made by the women featured in two large-format books — Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts and The Quilts of Gee’s Bend — both from Tinwood Books, Atlanta, published in association with The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The books tell a story of a community of quilt makers in an isolated, horseshoe bend of the Alabama River. Copiously illustrated, they feature photos of the area, the women and full-color reproductions of the quilts, though the latter often lack the radiance of the originals.

These are the works of women who, in a mostly mule-and-wagon existence, spent their days harvesting crops, tending livestock and raising families — women (several of whom were members of the White Rose singing group, a church-connected vocal ensemble) who spent their Sundays worshiping and lifting their voices to make a joyful spiritual noise. It was during their evenings that the quilts were sung and hummed over as they were being created.

And it is a spiritual-like esthetic that has determined their handiworks’ final character. The spiritual is a musical form fabricated from elements of African- and Protestant-American traditions. It was created by Africans desperate to retain as much of their African selves as possible in the face of the hardships of their existence in America.

The African portion of the melodic mix, which is free-form and improvisational, and shaped by the feelings and possibilities of the moment, contains elements of the folk and the religious. It speaks of the real and the ideal. Mutually included are woes and joy, hard times and hope. It’s a creativity based on necessity — a necessity dictating content and form. That’s the essence of the spiritual esthetic and is the guiding stylistic tenet of the Gee’s Bend quilters.

The women reclaimed and recycled the salvageable from every available scrap, patch or rag, whether worn denim, pot-boiled and bleached fertilizer sacks, gin-house cotton or corduroy, fabrics textured or smooth, printed or plain. Discard was not an alternative, waste or throwaway not an option. Nor was being fancy a first consideration. To quote quilter Annie Mae Young, “All I wanted was a quilt. ‘What that quilt name?’ ‘Quilt.’” Its reason for being was night warmth, not as objet d’art.

The form each spiritual song takes can be personal or communal. Quilting can be an equally solitary or shared experience: A movable bee, that locates from house to house, or a woman alone with her cloth, thoughts and thread, piecing in the privacy of her bedroom. In either case, there’s the faith at the base of the spiritual esthetic that working with what you have insures a troubled life won’t be that way always. Yet, even in a form as bare-boned as one based on the spiritual esthetic, there’s no law that a quilt can’t sing or hum as an additional comforting protection against winds knifing in through cracks and crevices in the night.

As with a spiritual, the design of the quilt, in a ritual of creation carried over from Africa, is discovered in the improvisational process of its making. The swatches and bits of yard goods are analogous to the shouts, moans, guttural utterances, metaphors, similes, themes and stories of which spirituals are comprised.

A piece of cloth is put down as a way to begin, the same as with an opening line being sung in formulating a song — then another piece is selected because of some intuitive, cultural, rhythmic or thematic connection with the first. The process continues in a personal, spontaneous call-and-response of selection and placement, trial and error, guided by an internal sense of balance and connection with the natural and the cultural universe.

The resulting composition is a melody of colors, shapes and textures, repetitions and variations, atonal and harmonious, that are a self-expressive declaration of overcoming a need by one’s own ingenuity. Considering how artful and art-like the quilts are, it’s ironic that they also seem unrestrained by adherence to the conventions or rules of art.

Observing the quilts themselves makes the mind canter between varied Western references from art history courses: “Primitive Art,” Richard Diebenkorn, Raymond Saunders, Josef Albers, Henri Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein and classic quilt patterns associated with other quilting traditions.

Spirituals travel border-to-border and coast-to-coast over the landscape of human emotions — butting up against the raucous passion of the blues, the unquestioned faith of gospel, the rip and romp of jazz and the simplicity of pop. The visual scope of the collage-like quilts covers similar stylistic terrain. It’s a further case against those who seek to qualify and quantify — or to segregate one thing from another, art from craft, high from low, insider from outsider, modern from postmodern. The quilters of Gee’s Bend prove that reducing a thing to its essence is the key to taking it beyond categories, and getting the sweet honey from the rock.

The women of Gee’s Bend, like their Ndebele sisters in South Africa, Shaker sisters in New York and Amish sisters in Pennsylvania, are craftswomen working within traditions of their own making, traditions of doing all you can with all you have. They are also traditions embodying freedom within restrictions, and the freedom of each individual to have her say, speak her own piece, be known by the work of her hand.

In Gee’s Bend, they make quilts with the same defiantly joyous spirit that they confront Satan with each Sunday service. Many label them abstractions. Others might call them visual hallelujahs. Still others might say fabric soul food. The Gee’s Bend makers call them quilts.


An exhibition of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” will be held at the Milwaukee Art Museum Sept. 27, 2003-Jan. 4, 2004. For more information, go to

Bill Harris writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].