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August 3rd, 2007
An Advanced Look At Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt (August 2—October 2, 2008)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, an exhibition taking a fresh look at the quilting tradition in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and introducing new artists and new motifs in works ranging from the early 20th century through 2005. The exhibition examines the resurgence of interest in quilting in the Gee’s Bend community, presenting newly discovered quilts from the 1930s to the 1980s along with more recent work by established quilters and the younger generation they have inspired. It documents the development of key quilt patterns—housetop, courthouse steps, flying geese, and strip quilting—through outstanding examples. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta, the exhibition is accompanied by a publication by Bernard Herman of the University of Delaware, and includes an essay by Dilys Blum, Curator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“While the art of these remarkable women is clearly informed by their particular geographic and cultural coordinates, their creative command of materials and design connects them to larger movements in contemporary American art,” Curator of Costume and Textile Dilys Blum remarked. In his catalogue essay, Herman compares the works in the exhibition to the structured compositions of Piet Mondrian and Esther Mahlangu, a Ndebele house painter from South Africa.

The 65 quilts in the exhibition, all of which are shown for the first time, will demonstrate how the quilters play upon the structure or "architecture" of the quilt to create a work of art that is based upon a traditional quilt pattern while simultaneously creating a visual vocabulary that is stylistically identifiable as Gee’s Bend. Each pattern is examined with visual examples detailing various interpretations. New works by granddaughters and great-granddaughters of master quilt makers will be shown, along with quilts from the early and mid-20th century.

About Gee’s Bend
The quilts in the exhibition are drawn from the collection of Tinwood Alliance, a non-profit foundation for the support of African-American vernacular art, founded by William Arnett. Arnett first traveled to the area in 1997 in search of Annie Mae Young, whose picture he had seen in Roland Freeman’s book on African-American quilters, Communion of the Spirit, along with her quilt. Young pointed him to Gee’s Bend, a community of about 750 residents isolated on a U-shaped sliver of land on the Alabama River. Lacking ferry service until very recently, Benders, as residents are called, are one hour’s drive from the county seat of Camden, the closest source of supplies, schools, and medical services. Geographically isolated, the women in the community created quilts from whatever materials were available, in patterns of their own imaginative design.

Gee’s Bend was named after Joseph Gee, the first white man to stake a claim there in the early 1800s. The Gee family sold the plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845 and most present-day residents are descendants of enslaved people on the former Pettway plantation. Their forebears continued to work the land as tenant farmers after emancipation, and many eventually bought the farms from the government in the 1940s. Gee’s Bend first became known for its quilts, briefly, during the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s when the Freedom Quilting Bee was organized. Many quilters in the community represent second-generation quilting within a family.

This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta.

Accompanying the exhibition is an extensive catalogue, Gee´s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, by Bernard Herman, director of the Center for American Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware. Other catalogue contributors include Lauren Whitley, Dilys Blum, Diane Mott, Joanne Cubbs, and Maggie Gordon. The catalogue will be available for purchase in the Museum Store and online.

Also on View
The Ella King Torrey Collection of African American Quilts
In autumn 2008, while Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt can be seen in the Dorrance Galleries, the Spain Gallery in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building will feature a complementary installation of African American quilts from the Ella King Torrey Collection. A recent gift to the Museum, this extraordinary collection includes 13 works by leading Southern quilt makers. Among its highlights are an appliquéd “word quilt” by the Mississippi artist Sarah Mary Taylor (born 1916) and one of her “hand” quilts, a version of which was commissioned for the film The Color Purple. Two quilts are by Taylor’s mother, Pearlie Posey (1894–1984), who in 1980 followed her daughter’s lead and began creating rainbow-hued figurative appliqué quilts. A boldly colored quilt by Arester Earl (1892–1988) from Georgia is constructed of individually padded and pieced squares sewn together, a style unique to the artist. Several of the quilts are by artists from the celebrated community of quilters in Gees Bend, Alabama, including strongly graphic examples by attributed to members of the Pettway family. One of the most dramatic examples is a reversible “house top” quilt.

A Philadelphia native, the late Ella King Torrey was a leading figure in the art world, having served as director of Pew Fellowships in the Arts and President of the Art Institute of San Francisco prior to her death in 2003. Ms. Torrey assembled her quilt collection between 1981 and 1983 while conducting fieldwork on African American quilt-making with Maud Southwell Wahlman. Several of the quilts were included in one of the first exhibitions of its kind, Ten Afro-American Quilters, held at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture in 1983.

About the Museum’s Collection of Costume and Textiles
Since its founding as an outgrowth of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has assembled one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of costume and textiles in the world, numbering some 30,000 objects altogether. The collection ranges from Chinese Han Dynasty textiles to the couture of famed 20th century designer Elsa Schiaparelli and fine examples of contemporary designs by France’s Jean Paul Gaultier, England’s Vivienne Westwood, Italy’s Gianni Versace, and Japan’s Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, among many others.

Opening in autumn 2007 the new, 2,000-square foot Spain Gallery of Costume and Textiles, located off the skylit galleria on the first floor, will nearly triple the exhibition space dedicated to Costume and Textiles, enabling the department to mount several in-depth special exhibitions per year. The Hamilton Center for Costume and Textiles, located on the Perelman Building’s second floor and named for noted philanthropist Dorrance Hill Hamilton, will house the department’s offices, state-of-the-art work and study rooms, a dedicated conservation lab, and expanded climate-controlled storage. The expanded study facility will provide greater opportunities to engage with the scholarly community, including young designers and art students, as well as the public.

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