Blocks and strips

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    Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio
Wool, cotton, corduroy
98 x 86 inches
Collection of
National Gallery of Art
Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

One of the best known and most revered 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. Within this work, somber rectangles of brown wool and blue denim engage in a cubist struggle to subdue a rowdy assortment of brightly colored strips and squares.

In the most basic sense, Bendolph’s geometric imagery is an ingenious elaboration on the common practice of strip quilting, a fundamental technique of piecing together bands of cloth that is widespread throughout the South and in many other patchwork traditions. Her gridlike forms also seem to play off the structural framework of the “Housetop" pattern, a conventional quilt design of concentric squares that is particularly popular among the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend. But according to Bendolph herself, the majority of her works simply draw inspiration from the colors, shapes, and patterns of the world around her, resulting in quilts that are really abstract remappings of the surrounding visual environment. As she recently explained, “Most of my ideas come from looking at things. Quilts is in everything. Sometimes I see a big truck passing by. I look at the truck and say, I could make a quilt look like that. . . . I see the barn, and I get an idea to make a quilt. I can walk outside and look around in the yard and see ideas all around the front and the back of my house. . . . As soon as I leave the house I get ideas.“ —Joanne Cubbs