Gee’s Bend Elder Mary Lee Bendolph Continues an Age-Old Quilting Tradition
For Mary Lee Bendolph, who is among the best-known of the celebrated quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, making quilts is not only a labor of necessity, but also of love. When once asked if she considered quilting work or play, she answered: “Same. Work and play. I enjoy working. I love to work. […] I don’t hardly get tired. I don’t get hungry as long as I’m sitting down there working. […] I do it because I love to do it.”
Bendolph is now among the Gee’s Bend elders. She is the keeper of its history, who knows and is known by everyone. For generations, the women of this isolated African-American community, located on a patch of land bordered on three sides by the Alabama River, have gathered together to make quilts. While mothers and grandmothers worked scraps of worn clothing into beautiful, inventive, and boldly colored geometric patterns, their young girls would play beneath the stretched fabric, not yet old enough to take their place in the quilting circle. This was a circle of influence and individuality. Together, the women developed a shared style, while also finding their own artistic voices.
Known for her uniquely imaginative and exuberant quilted compositions, Bendolph is guided by the cuts and seams of the strips of clothing with which she works, by the quilts of the women in her extended family, and, as she describes, by “the ideas that come to me as I’m putting the pieces together.” Says Bendolph of her process, “I know how I want it to look, but it usually comes out looking better than it did in my mind.” The vitality of her handiwork is on full display in a quilt called Growth Spell (2009). Its cover is a variation on the so-called “housetop” style, referring to repeating arrangements of concentric squares and rectangles. With its alternating patterned and solidly colored strips and triangles pieced together into nested squares, the quilt is so visually rhythmic it almost seems to dance. How appropriate for a piece made out of a patchwork of used clothes, imbued, in Bendolph’s words, with the “love of the people who have worn them.”