1935 -

Mary Lee Bendolph

    About

    One of the best-known and most revered Gee’s Bend quiltmakers, Mary Lee Bendolph, has spent many decades transforming scraps of old cloth into aesthetic marvels. To create her quilts, she tears worn and discarded clothing into simple strips and blocks of fabric, then assembles them into highly refined geometric abstractions. Her genius resides in her ability to invent a seemingly endless variety of complex compositions and astounding visual effects from a rudimentary vocabulary of shapes.

    In a 1999 interview, she described the process of quiltmaking in Gee’s Bend.

    Families down here, they like to do together. See, we farm together, and the ladies in the family get together for quilting. In them days, they farm three months, then when the lay-by time come—’round the last of May, June—they go to piecing quilts. August, go back to the field. October and November, up into December—and then after Christmas and New Year over with—back to piecing and quilting. Piece by yourself; quilt together.

    When you go to quilt, you beat the cotton out on the floor, first thing, to get the dust out. Then sweep the floor—collect the cotton—spread the lining out and put the cotton back on the lining, beat it out, put the top on there, get your thread and needles and hook it in the quilting frame.

    Most of the families down here did the same thing—piece by theirselves and come together to quilt. On my side, my family, we go fast, don’t follow no patterns so close. Other families take more time, do slow work. They don’t get out in the road much like us did. We just try to put it together and get it through with. We don’t try to style it or nothing. Folks call some of this kind of stuff “crazy quilts”—don’t know which-a-way it going. I never did go by a pattern. Didn’t none us. I mostly take after my aunt Louella, but I never make a quilt altogether like anybody. I watched Mama back when she could work, but she was slow and careful more than me.

    We got a big family spread out down here making quilts: Mama and her sister Louella Pettway; Mama’s sister Virginia, her daughter Linda Pettway, and Linda’s daughters, Lucy Witherspoon and Gloria Hoppins; my mother-in-law, Indiana Bendolph Pettway. My sister Lillie Mae, she made real pretty quilts before she passed. Mama’s first cousin Deborah Young could make beautiful quilts, and her daughter Arcola. My daughter, Essie, always been doing good work since she was little. She a very strong-minded person. Determination. She like to make things like I make, but she look at it and go home and do it better.

    In 1999, Bendolph was the subject of “Crossing Over,” the Los Angeles Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article about the effort to reestablish ferry service across the Alabama River. Her 1998 “Housetop” variation appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 2006 as part of the American Treasures series. In 2015, she received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor for folk and traditional arts in the United States. Her work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Dallas Museum of Art; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; High Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art; National Gallery of Art; New Orleans Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Phillips Collection; The Studio Museum in Harlem; Tate Modern; and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

    Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Souls Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    A wide-ranging survey of Black art in the American South, from Thornton Dial and Nellie Mae Rowe to the quilters of Gee’s Bend For generations, Black artists from the American South have forged a unique art tradition. Working in near isolation from established practices, they have created masterpieces in clay, driftwood, roots, soil, and recycled and cast-off objects that articulate America's painful past--the inhuman practice of enslavement, the cruel segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era and institutionalized racism. Their works respond to issues ranging from economic inequality, oppression and social marginalization to sexuality, the influence of place and ancestral memory.
    Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South

    Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South

    This catalogue accompanies the exhibition Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South, presented at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, June 8-November 17, 2019.

    Outliers and American Vanguard Art

    Outliers and American Vanguard Art

    For a new exhibition launching at the National Gallery of Art, curator Lynne Cooke explores shifting conceptualizations of the American outlier across the 20th century, drawing on the inherent sociality of the exhibition in her installation of these works. This companion catalog, "Outliers and American Vanguard Art," offers a fantastic opportunity to consider works by schooled and self-taught creators in relation to each other and defined by historical circumstance.

    Outliers and American Vanguard Art

    Outliers and American Vanguard Art

    For a new exhibition launching at the National Gallery of Art, curator Lynne Cooke explores shifting conceptualizations of the American outlier across the 20th century, drawing on the inherent sociality of the exhibition in her installation of these works. This companion catalog, "Outliers and American Vanguard Art," offers a fantastic opportunity to consider works by schooled and self-taught creators in relation to each other and defined by historical circumstance.

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    While the artists featured in this groundbreaking catalog were born in the Jim Crow period of institutionalized racism, their works embody the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Originally created as expressions of individual identity and communal solidarity, these eloquent objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. This gorgeous book features lush illustrations of works by artists such as Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and the Gee's Bend quilters--including Gearldine Westbrook, Jessie T. Pettway, and more--and presents a series of insightful essays.

    Creation Story: Gee's Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial

    Creation Story: Gee's Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial

    Creation Story explores parallels and intersections in the works of Dial and his fellow Alabamians, the remarkable quilters of Gee’s Bend. In the tradition of African American cemetery constructions and yard art, these artists harness the tactile properties and symbolic associations of cast-off materials in creating an art of profound beauty and evocative power.
    Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee's Bend Quilts, and Beyond

    Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee's Bend Quilts, and Beyond

    Mary Lee Bendolph’s extraordinary patchworks garnered national attention when they were featured among the works of other quiltmakers from her tiny, predominately African American community in the 2002 blockbuster exhibition and book, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. This beautiful book examines Bendolph’s inspiration, creative process, and individual genius, as well as her profound connection to the cultural practices and expressive traditions out of which her work arises. 

    Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

    Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

    This book and exhibition are part of a growing family of research projects about the African American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and its quilts. Surrounded on three sides by a river, Gee’s Bend developed a distinctive local culture and quilt design aesthetic. In 2002 the inaugural exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend documented these quiltmaking achievements. Expanding upon that initial exhibition and its accompanying publications, Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt offers a deeper look into the women and their art, and a more focused investigation into the nature and inspirations—and future—of the Gee’s Bend quilt tradition.

    Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers: Black Artists from the American South

    Royal Academy of Arts
    March 17, 2023 to June 18, 2023
    For generations, Black artists from the American South have forged a unique art tradition. Working in near isolation from established practices, they have created masterpieces that articulate America’s painful past – the inhuman practice of enslavement, the cruel segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, and institutionalised racism. Souls Grown Deep like the Rivers brings together sculpture, paintings, reliefs, drawings, and quilts, most of which will be seen in the UK and Europe for the first time. It will also feature the celebrated quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and the neighbouring communities of Rehoboth and Alberta.
    In the Studio: Inherited Threads

    In the Studio: Inherited Threads

    Tate Modern
    Ongoing

    Investigate the processes artists use to make artworks, and how our responses are integral to the piece. Discover artworks which incorporate used textile fragments or reference textile traditions to demonstrate the ways in which cloth holds memory.

    Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South

    Called to Create: Black Artists of the American South

    National Gallery of Art
    September 18, 2022 to December 31, 2023

    In 2020, the National Gallery acquired 40 sculptures, assemblages, paintings, reliefs, quilts, and drawings from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, and several related gifts have recently entered the collection as well. Enjoy these inventive works, including nine Gee’s Bend quilts, and learn the remarkable stories of their making and makers.

    Intersections: Sanford Biggers

    Intersections: Sanford Biggers

    The Phillips Collection
    October 16, 2021 to January 2, 2022

    Sanford Biggers’s Intersections project presents a visual and conceptual interplay—a mosaic—of distinct histories, cultural narratives, and art styles. Drawing from works in the Phillips’s permanent collection, including the Gee’s Bend quilts that were recently acquired and a number of European modernist sculptures, Biggers produced a new body of work that bridges past art traditions with current multimedia practices.

    We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South

    We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South

    Turner Contemporary
    February 7, 2020 to September 6, 2020

    We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South is the first exhibition of its kind in the UK and reveals a little-known history shaped by the Civil Rights period in the 1950s and 60s. It will bring together sculptural assemblages, paintings and quilts by more than 20 African American artists from Alabama and surrounding states.

    Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South

    Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South

    Philadelphia Museum of Art
    June 8, 2019 to September 2, 2019

    The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South, an exhibition including paintings, sculptures, and quilts that celebrates the recent acquisition of 24 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

    Outliers and American Vanguard Art

    Outliers and American Vanguard Art

    National Gallery of Art
    January 28, 2018 to May 13, 2018

    Self-taught artists—variously termed folk, primitive, visionary, naïve, and outsider—have played a significant role in the history of modernism, yet their contributions have been largely disregarded or forgotten. Again and again in the United States during the past century, vanguard artists found affinities and inspiration in the work of their untutored, marginalized peers and became staunch advocates, embracing them as fellow artists.

    Outliers and American Vanguard Art

    Outliers and American Vanguard Art

    National Gallery of Art
    January 28, 2018 to May 13, 2018

    Self-taught artists—variously termed folk, primitive, visionary, naïve, and outsider—have played a significant role in the history of modernism, yet their contributions have been largely disregarded or forgotten. Again and again in the United States during the past century, vanguard artists found affinities and inspiration in the work of their untutored, marginalized peers and became staunch advocates, embracing them as fellow artists.

    Gee's Bend: From Quilt to Print

    In 2006 and 2007, The Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE) commissioned four Gee's Bend quilters to produce prints for display in fifty U.S. Embassies around the world.

    The Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend

    This uplifting, Emmy-winning PBS film tells the modern-day "Cinderalla" story of the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Artists born into extreme poverty, they live to see their quilts hailed by a The New York Times art critic as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."

    The Quilts of Gee's Bend

    The Quilts of Gee's Bend documentary accompanies the major exhibitions of Gee's Bend quilts. Set in the quiltmaker's homes and yard, and told through the women's voices, this music-filled, 28-minute documentary takes viewers inside the art and fascinating living history of a uniquely American community and art form.