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.

    Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

    Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

    Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair—quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants.

    The Quilts of Gee's Bend

    The Quilts of Gee's Bend

    The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, black community in Alabama—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend tells the story of this town and its art.

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    Revelations: Art from the African American South

    de Young Museum
    June 3, 2017 to April 1, 2018

    "Revelations: Art from the African American South" celebrates the debut of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta of 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States.

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

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

    Frist Center for the Visual Arts
    May 25 - September 2, 2012

    This exhibition explores parallels and intersections in the works of the world-famous Gee’s Bend quilters and the master of assemblage art, Thornton Dial. Quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend feature a sophisticated orchestration of color and eccentric quasi-geometric shapes composing what the New York Times has said are “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

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

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

    Museum of International Folk Art
    November 16, 2007 – May 11, 2008
    This exhibition puts the Gee’s Bend quilts in context by featuring the work of master quilt maker Mary Lee Bendolph and those she influenced, accompanied by the art of artists working in the found-object tradition who are part of her artistic sphere, including Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley.
    Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

    Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

    Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
    June 4 – September 4, 2006

    "Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt" features seventy spectacular quilts made by four generations of women in Gee's Bend, a small, isolated African American community in southwest Alabama. With bold improvisation of traditional quilt motifs, these women have created a style all their own. Made between the 1930s and the present, the Gee's Bend quilts’ bright patterns, inventive color combinations, lively irregularities and unexpected compositional variations make them outstanding examples of modern art.

    The Quilts of Gee's Bend

    The Quilts of Gee's Bend

    Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
    September 6 – November 10, 2002

    "The Quilts of Gee’s Bend" celebrates the artistic legacy of four generations of African-American women from a small, historically all-black community in rural southern Alabama. This exhibition of over sixty extraordinary quilts that were made between 1930 and 2000 showcases a body of work that is bold, spirited, moving, and hailed by Michael Kimmelman, in The New York Times, as “some of the most miraculous works of art America has produced.”

    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.