Mary Lee Bendolph
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.