Work-clothes quilt

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    Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio
Denim and cotton
97 x 88 inches
Collection of
New Orleans Museum of Art
Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Until the middle of the twentieth century, most of the quilts in Gee’s Bend were made from work clothes, which, in the rural South, were simply the clothes that everyone wore nearly every day. When other fabrics became available, many women felt relief over no longer needing to wrestle these thicker and tougher materials into their patterns. Others, like Bendolph, did not mind the challenge and appreciated the meanings encoded within the old-style remnants of heavier cotton, wool, and denim. For Bendolph, in particular, the transformation of old and worn fabrics into beautiful and comforting quilts became a metaphor for surviving hard times. According to her, “They remind you of where you have been and where the Lord have brought you from.”

Throughout the lexicon of African American culture, castaway objects are often used to reaffirm life, as the reinvestment of creative energy in old and outworn things suggests the possibility of turning adversity into spiritual triumph and of redeeming the socially dispossessed or human castaways of the world. The tradition of the work-clothes quilt, perpetuated by Bendolph in many of her pieces, is part of that practice. Although her contemporary patchworks are no longer made from the pathos-ridden overalls of earlier times, her recycled-denim quilts continue to evoke the same notions of loss and redemption, despair and deliverance. In an especially intriguing example from 2002, Bendolph created a brooding patchwork composed almost entirely of worn blue jean scraps. But here and there within the dark, heavy field are passages of brilliant red. Even more paradoxical is the appearance of a few other squares of cloth printed with a delicate pink flower pattern—a symbol of regeneration. —Joanne Cubbs