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Favorites from Gees Bend

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019

As admired in the exhibit, Souls Grown Deep, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Housetop/Fractured Medallion Variation, Delia Bennett, 1955

Gee’s Bend is a small, poor, black community in Alabama. It’s only 44 miles west of Selma — where in 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. led protest marches to Montgomery, Alabama. But surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River, Gees Bend is isolated, a far cry from modern-day consumerism and attitudes. Most of the 700+ folks who live there are descended from slaves. After the departure of Joseph Gee and the dispersal of his slaves, the Pettway family ran the plantation. In order to stay on this land, many of them had to take on the Pettway surname. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers kept workers in poverty. Planting and picking cotton, peas, and peanuts, and tending hogs and cows provided long, hard days of bare subsistence farming. But poor by any standards, generations of Gees Bend women have created a rich legacy of quilt masterpieces. And these have garnered attention and accolades from the art world.

Now, when I worked on needlework and craft magazines in NYC in the 1980s, I studied pictures of American quilts made by European descendants, in order to write directions for recreating them. Typically, these quilts featured hundreds of patches — like the quilt at the top of this post, but each patch absolutely identical. Precise and ultra-fine handiwork, heirloom patterns, fabrics from England and France. Such fancy-work could only be made by women living in the lap of luxury, with plenty of time and money. Even the country quilts were mostly made using fabrics off the bolt rather than scraps and repurposed clothing.

So I admit, it took me a while to appreciate the wonky, asymmetrical compositions with edges out-of-square of the Gees Bend quilts. These women received only a few weeks of education a year — squeezed in after planting and again after the harvest. Quiltmaking, too, was fit in only after work and chores were seen to. They used what they had: denim and wool work clothing too far gone to mend, feedsack bags, and corduroy remnants when Sears was paying for pillow-making. Especially admirable in an age when reusing, recycling, and repurposing has gained moral importance. Yet these quilts, meant for the beds where sleeping family members needed warmth, now grace the same museum walls that show minimalist abstract art by Josef Albers, Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, and Sean Scully.

Roman Stripes (I’d call it Rail Fence; the maker calls it Crazy Quilt), Loretta Pettway, 1970

From an interview with Loretta Pettway: “I didn’t like to sew. Didn’t want to do it. I had a handicapped brother and I had to struggle. I had a lot of work to do. Feed hogs, work in the field, take care of my handicapped brother. Had to go to the field. Had to walk about fifty miles in the field every day. Get home too tired to do no sewing. My grandmama, Prissy Pettway, told me, ‘You better make quilts. You going to need them.’ I said, ‘I ain’t going to need no quilts.’ But when I got me a house, a raggly old house, then I needed them to keep warm. We only had heat in the living room, and when you go out of that room you need cover. I had to get up about four, five o’clock, and get coal. Make a fire. Them quilts done keep you warm.”

String-Pieced Blocks and Bars, Sue Willie Seltzer, using cotton, denim, and flannel, around 1965
Blocks and Strips Work-Clothes Quilt, Andrea Williams, 1991
This detail shows the seamed together fabric from well-worn blue jeans, a pale color everywhere except where a pocket once kept the dark denim from fading.

Like all the women in the show–and for that matter, in Gees Bend, Irene Williams has lots of quiltmaking relatives and neighbors. However this particular woman seems to have stitched to her own aesthetic. Since the age of 17, quiltmaking has been for her a solitary activity, a relief from working the cotton fields and raising six children. She explains, “When I got married, I started making quilts. I just put stuff together.” Among that “stuff” were basketball jerseys she pieced into a quilt top. Art critics delight in the whimsical way this work recalls maps with housing plots and numbers — or reflects a sly sense of humor.

Strips, Irene Williams, 1960s

Irene Williams also created the piece below. Here, too, she used what she had, which obviously included a good deal of polyester knit. Using such a fabric means you get lots of stretching — distorted seams, puffy texture, and wavy edges. But you also get intense color, an iconoclastic shape, and a bold, attention-grabbing graphic that made this the image used to represent the entire Souls Grown Deep exhibit for the Philadelphia Museum of Art promotional materials.

Blocks and Strips, Irene Williams, 2003

I recently led a group on an informal tour through the exhibit, sharing what I knew and listening to their reactions. Each person chose her favorite, and this one was selected by several. My charges also asked how fame had affected their lives. This article explains it best. Many of the quilts originally sold for $75 when the maker thought that was far too much. Or, later, for hundreds of dollars when the value was listed in the thousands. Some quiltmakers cite the satisfactions of recognition and newly installed indoor plumbing, the occasional air conditioner or heater. The Souls Grown Deep Foundation engaged the Artists’ Rights Society to secure for each maker her due: intellectual property rights; copyright fees that are owed for use of the images, remuneration for the work of deceased artists finding it’s way to the rightful next-of-kin. Some of the Gees Benders are grateful, others have engaged in long, drawn out lawsuits in which money is consumed by the plaintiff’s lawyers.

Quilts have put Gees Bend on the map. But it is still a small, poor community.

My Sanctuary City

Friday, April 26th, 2019
Sanctuary City, detail

Last summer, I took a collage class at QSDS–Quilt & Surface Design–from Deborah Fell.

Standing alongside my design wall in Deborah Fell’s class.

See that sprawling assemblage to the left of my hip? It started as a small abstract composition…abstraction being something I aspire to. But I can’t help myself; my work invariably calls to mind some object or scene, and I’m off to flesh out figurative or landscape designs.

This held true here: I saw buildings and began to recreate my current hometown of Philadelphia. I had a few recognizable buildings, some vague representations, the Schuylkill River on the left, the Delaware River on the right. It came together in stages, and I placed sturdy pieces of canvas or upholstery weight fabric under the expanding areas as foundations for a large, odd-shaped wall hanging.

City between two rivers…

A few months later, I read about a SAQA (Studio Art Quilters Association) call for entry: Forced to Flee. The theme resonated. As a volunteer, I’ve long advocated for compassionate immigration reform and protested against Muslim bans, the Wall, family separations, and inhumane detention centers. I decided to finish my cityscape to express pride that Philadelphia is one among hundreds of sanctuary cities in the U.S. My “city of brotherly love” (sisterly love is implied!) accepts its moral obligation to protect immigrants and refugees. City leaders and activists alike fight against detentions, deportations, family separations, and discrimination. We rise to welcome the stranger, give shelter, secure safe haven for those “forced to flee.”

Knowing the caliber of work submitted to a SAQA show, I thought I’d have less competition for a 3-D piece, and be more likely to get in. So, I traced around an oval trashcan for a pattern — cuz what better to give me elegance than a trashcan? I continued to build my city over thick Pel-tex stabilizer so the vessel would be an upstanding example. Alternately, I worked on the inside surface, using a vintage quilt fragment for its soft, comforting associations, plus emergency mylar thermal blankets of the sort that are given to detainees. I cannot express how much struggling, how much cursing, how many broken needles went into assembling this beast. It stands 28” high. To ensure steadiness without adding weights, I fashioned a spiral pathway with signs and symbols of concern and welcome: bi-lingual expressions, caution tape, keys and safety pins and zippers.

There were further frustrations as I hand-stitched the elements together. Then I had to photograph it to try and meet the demands for pixels, clarity, background, and appropriate depth of field. I managed to submit my information and images 45 minutes before the deadline.

I didn’t get in to the Forced to Flee show. I get it. Jurors receive hundreds of submissions and usually curate down to under 50 — for a cohesive, high-quality exhibit at venues with limited spaces. Perhaps my piece was too discombobulated and did not appeal to the judge. Perhaps there were no other 3-D pieces and this would have been odd man out. And perhaps my photos weren’t up to what SAQA demands for not only the judging, but also the catalog.

Rejection gave me several advantages: I really wasn’t satisfied with the piece, and was now free to make significant changes. Another SAQA call for entry beckoned: 3-D expressions. I had time to revise and polish the composition from all sides and the inside. New construction and embellishment strengthened the overall aesthetic and referenced more Philly iconography. I added more vintage mini-blocks and doilies to the inside, and crocheted an oval rug to cozy up the “inner sanctum.” I want those who see the piece to take time to walk around it and peer inside. And yeah, I’m tempted to throw in little stuffed heart-shaped pillows, additional keys, and poems of welcome…but mostly because I don’t know when to stop. What do you think? More secrets and treasures? Or enough already?!?

Happier with the piece, I took the time to hire an expert photographer — Gary Grissom — and set it up in a better-lit niche. Now I felt more confident submitting it to the other show.

More time and attention to detail and good workmanship, along with professional shots, did the trick. I got in!

Icing on this cake is the impressive decision-maker, an art professor and gallery director who is one of the finest modern fiber curators in the world. (Oh, and he’s a Philadelphian.!) SAQA’s website states, “The wide variety of pieces selected by juror Bruce Hoffman include vessels, wearables, wall-pieces, and sculptural artworks. This cutting-edge exhibition shows how textile art can expand both into the third dimension and into the future.”

This exhibition, 3-D Expression, will premiere at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan in September 2019. I am angling to see while it’s there. Aside from the honor of having my work included, I would be thrilled to study all the other works in the only way they can truly be appreciated: by walking around them and checking them out from every angle.

Meanwhile, I’m back to making essentially 2-D art quilts for a while. Oh, and shopping for a workhorse of a sewing machine that may allow for thick, sculptural work in the months to come.

From Painting to Quilting, and Black

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

Back home in the bosom of my family for the Passover seder, I took the opportunity to see an art quilt exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art that’s been getting a lot of great press, which it richly deserves. It’s comprised of new work by Stephen Towns, trained as a painter, self-taught to quilt — for this body of work in particular. BTW, you can see it in the cloth if you get to the BMA before Sept. 2.

The piece above and below, titled “Birth of a Nation,” is the star of the show. A black mammy, tenderly suckling a white baby against the backdrop of an American flag of 1777, puts slavery and white supremacy in tension with each other. A coffee and tea-dyed dress, patched with toile prints and barely clearing the bed of dirt below the quilt evokes the humble status of the Madonna-like figure.

Surrounding this installation are seven smaller story quilts; whether portrait or landscape orientation, each is about a yard along its longest edges. These works depict key moments in the life of Nat Turner’s life and the rebellion he led against slavery in 1831. My favorite one featured another mother and child: Under the cover of night, when plantation work was done, Nat Turner’s mother teaches her young son to read, or schools him in gospel. The composition proves Mr. Towns’ incomparable talent as a portrait painter…just as the materials and techniques give away his seat-of-the-pants sewing and quilting skills. Fabrics are from an old stash (perhaps his mother’s?): those of us sewing and quilting in the ’60s, and ’70s will recognize the calicos, ginghams, and synthetics, and that proud feeling when you think to add translucent tulle and sparkly beads to skies, buttons to clothing.

Titled, “Special Child,” this piece is the first in the cycle, which all show what how the facts known about Nat Turner coalesced into myth and icon: slave, keenly intelligent child, preacher man, leader of an effective slave rebellion. It’s refreshing to have the story, told so often by whites such as William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner), reclaimed by an African-American living and working in the Black Lives Matter era.

Stephen Towns assesses his “framed” portraits of Nat Turner and his wife, Cherry Turner, which accompany the exhibit.

Stars, moons, or suns (plus the occasional butterfly) play a role in each work of art, connecting people with the universe, and with the spirit as creator. Celestial bodies stand in as haloes, symbolizing sainthood or martyrdom. And is the red scroll below an ecclesiastical stole, or a symbol of the bloodshed already committed and also up ahead?

In each work of another series of paintings, the halo is a blue moon behind an enslaved rebel leader who has been caught. A hangman’s noose and a fist figure prominently. Click here to read what happened with these intensely powerful, provocative portraits.

On a lighter note, quilters viewing this blog post may want to look back at the story quilts and note the minimal free-motion quilting in thread that matches the fabrics flattens the backgrounds, so they recede. In contrast, large stitches that most seasoned quilters would decry as “toe-hookers” become strong design lines in Towns’s narratives. Not only do they define important features, they add naivete, the mark of the hand.

As an art-lover, I have so much respect for Towns’s cohesive works within series, for his conceptual underpinnings and iconography–sun, moon, stars, haloes, butterflies, and the gold-leaf that recalls the elaborate frames on medieval religious art (as in the “framing” on Nat and Cherry Turner’s likenesses). The piece below is from yet another series. Each work depicts a child who experienced slavery, and each work bears a title from the Lord’s Prayer.

Riveting. Heart-rending.

And yet one detail resonates most for me as a quilter. Can you guess what that is?

 

Whoop-TEA-doo! It’s Earth Day!

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

In honor of Mother Earth, I just added a new piece to my ReUSE series.

 

tea rose-detail

 

I don’t know how long I’ve been stalking the idea of a Tea Roses piece, that is, roses made out of tea bag envelopes. Last year, I took lots and lots of pictures at a rose garden in Florida. Then, meaning to get rid of one horrid picture of me, I mistakenly deleted all my shots. That’ll teach me to put on my glasses when reviewing my shots!

Starting again, I found a photo of a yellow rose that I cannot now find–I think it is one of Sammie Moshenberg’s lovely images. I traced the picture, numbered the pieces, and prepared to do a cut and glue sort of applique with tea bag envelopes.

 

photo,b-wh

tracing

 

The “kit” of materials I assembled sat by the TV for months. Turned out this method that was waaaay too complicated for me. I’m more of a slap-dash kind of quilter.

Last week, an online quilt class taught by the extraordinary Pamela Allen of Canada featured an assignment for a fantasy fabric garden. That was the impetus to go back to my Tea Rose project once again, and substitute my trash stash for fabric prints to dash off some flowers. Following the lead of my sister students, I cut petals freehand, and worked in rounds. In this series, I simply adhere shapes with glue-stick over patchwork. White bags that once held ground coffee gave me bigger pieces and a quiet background, too.  I cultivated plots of assorted tea bag and coffee packaging to sort of fence in my garden.

 

tea rose 1

 

Due to the foil-lined packaging that holds a crease, I was able to fold back some of the petals like a real flower. But even with the silver backing peeking up, the flower heads looked too dense, and the petals weren’t readable as separate shapes.

Back to the drawing board, I tried out an open design, like an arts & crafts style stencil or stained glass design.

 

tea rose 2

 

Better! Then on to layering over woolfelt (wool and rayon blend), preshrunk for a thick, sherpa-like quality.  Quick quilting and trimming with passementerie and ball fringe gets everything sown so I can reap the rewards before Earth Day ends!

 

styled,EL

 

tea rose-EL

 

My garden is a bit messy, and even though the bottom edge is angled, the whole thing should still hang straight and true. Not the case, not even close. But as they say, DONE is better than perfect.

Hope everything’s coming up roses for you! And that you ReUSE, RECYCLE, and REPURPOSE trash or found objects to REDUCE your carbon footprint. Oh, and RECONSIDER the many ways of creating quilted art!

 

 

Prize(s!) announced!

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Announcing the winners of my purple comment challenge! I’ve listed them below, and replied to them individually below. Please send me your addresses (so I can get your prizes off in the mail) via email:

elevie@comcast.net

 

Honestly, I was struck by the winning qualities of every single comment.  You showed me that people are reading my blog. And since that “literary form”– if you wanna call it that–is a one-way street, you made it fun to check my inbox all week long for your points of view.

On to the prize winners:

For inspiring me with her courage in the face of adversity and her rhapsody for the Purple…er, Blue Ridge Mountains, the big stash of purple fabrics goes to….drumroll, please…. Robin. BTW, because you made yourself absolutely unforgettable, I will be throwing in a complimentary copy of my book Unforgettable Tote Bags.

For tickling my fancy…er, my funnybone, a copy of my Quilt Blocks Go Wild! plus one purple fat quarter goes to: LeeAnna Paylor. And she didn’t even mention her  quilt inspired by the famous poem, “When I am old I shall wear purple!”

For Sue Levin, who is so passionate about purple she uses it for walls and ceilings of her home, as well as in her quilts, a copy of my Skinny Quilts & Table Runners II book….plus a purple fat quarter.

For Kristin Freeman, who paints landscapes with her words, a copy of Accidental Landscapes, by the amazing Karen Eckmeier, and edited by yours truly, plus one fat quarter (with purple and earth tones!).

 

Earth Day Giveaway!

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Happy Earth Day! To those who made comments on the posts of April 12 and 20: YOU’VE ALL WON a FREE copy of my book, UNFORGETTABLE TOTE BAGS! Email me–ELevie@comcast.net with your name and mailing address. If you do not live in the contiguous United States, we’ll “talk.”

I’m so proud to share designs by this amazing collection of quilting celebrities. And I know YOU’ll be so proud of yourself and the bag you’ll make using the ideas and inspiration in this book. This is one bag you won’t forget when you go shopping, ‘cause it’ll be, well, unforgettable!

Let me tell you, I’ve had books published by AQS, Martingale, Harry Abrams, Workman Press, Rodale, and more. But in keeping with the green theme of this book, I just had to self-publish it, choosing a top-quality green printer in the US that used recycled paper and non-toxic inks. I’m really glad I did it my way, the green way.

I gotta confess, though, I had to dip deep into my savings to do it.  It was hard, and I don’t expect to come close to breaking even. Soooo I hope you don’t mind my suggesting some ways you might thank me for this gift— only if you like it, of course!

•    Write a review on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Unforgettable-Tote-Bags-Celebrity-Quilters/product-reviews/0615317502/ref=dp_top_cm_cr_acr_txt?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1

•    Ask your local or regional quilt guilds and quilt shops to check out my presentations:http://www.eleanorlevie.com/speaker-topics.php
and workshops: http://www.eleanorlevie.com/speaker-topics.php
and invite me in for an unforgettable program. I’ll work with neighboring groups to schedule trips that keep the travel expenses affordable for everybody.

•     Buy this book—and other books-—from my website. Good prices, great gifts, and personally autographed for you or the person at the receiving end of your gift. If you’re a sewing, quilting, or art teacher, why not teach a tote bag class—or series of classes!? Contact me for incredible prices on books in multiple for all your students.

•     Stay in touch! Keep me–and all of us–green, smart, and on-trend or ahead of the curve!  Share your news and views. Bookmark my quilting blog, “like” my Facebook page, Inspiring Quilting. And watch for my next book, Quilt Blocks Go Wild!, coming out in August.

With all the best from me and Mother Earth!

 

Honoring Earth Day with Fabulous Fiber

Friday, April 20th, 2012

Grabbing another chance to share some of the highlights of Fiber Philadelphia 2012–still going on in many venues. Just in time for Earth Day on Sunday, I’m shining light on a few innovative works by artists who celebrate nature with wit and innovation.

And you, dear reader, get to grab another chance at my giveaway: On Earth Day, April 22, I’ll be giving away 22 of my make-it-green collection of Unforgettable Tote Bags: 20 designs too cool to leave in the car. With designs by Virginia Avery, Karen Eckmeier, Kaffe Fassett and Liza Lucy, Diane Gaudynski,  Judy Hooworth, Jean Ray Laury,  Lonni Rossi,  Jane Sassaman, Susan Shie, and me, you’ll be getting a lot of ways to avoid paper, plastic, or those made-in-China mystery-fiber reusable grocery bags. Me, I invariably carry a hand-made tote bag that doubles as purse and carry-all. To check it out, click here. To get in on the deal, leave a comment on this blog!

 

On to eco-friendly fiberart. First up, friendly fauna in diminutive crochet, by Carol Eckert. These delightful pieces in cotton over wire are on view at the Wexler Gallery in Philly; Silent Invocations and Snakes for Fish:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From fauna to flora, get a load of “Leaf Fall, Fragments var. 3” by Barbara J. Schneider—photo transfer on fabric. It’s a stunner among the Art Quilts Elements master works at the Wayne Art Center:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You want flowers? Joan Dreyer, whose work was on view at the Crane, made the light and lyrical Still Life/Daisies. Look closely and guess what those petals are made from…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Were you able to sink your teeth into that challenge? They are dental X-rays, darlings!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, above, a word to live by. This is “Chance Encounter,” by Gyongy Laky, part of the instructors’ exhibit at the Crane. Fiber was never as expansively defined—or as exciting—as it was at this venue.  You want more recognizable  forms of fiber—something closer to quilting? Enter the giveaway and get inspired to make an Unforgettable Tote Bag. Just leave a comment here: What do you think of these pieces? How are you going green in your creative expression?