In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston opened “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” an exhibition of bright and inventive quilts, many of which looked like they could have come out of the studios of artists working at the height of modernism. They came, in fact, from the homes of the generations of African-American women who made them, in the small, isolated community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Most of the residents of Gee’s Bend are descended from slaves. Their lives were centered upon cycles of cotton picking and planting for the Pettway plantation. The women quilted because they had to: With no central heating and little money, they transformed worn clothing, feed sacks, and all manner of other fabric scraps into the striking quilts that are now known and admired well beyond their place of origin, and considered American cultural treasures.
Thanks to Paulson Bott Press, which has been working with four of the quilters of Gee’s Bend—Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Pettway, and Loretta Bennett—the bold, geometric patterns and harmonious colors of the quilts have been translated into beautiful, limited-edition prints. Louisiana Bendolph’s prints are currently on view in “Doorway to a Dream: Prints by Louisiana Bendolph” at the Paulson Bott’s space in Berkeley, California. In both her quilts and prints, Bendolph favors the so-called “housetop” style, featuring concentric squares and rectangles arranged into a myriad of patterns. The compositions of LOOK UNDERNEATH (2014) and MAYDAY (2005), for example, are dominated by large rectangles formed of nested individual ones, while in HOUSETOP BLOCK AT MY MOTHER’S KNEES (2014), two squares set side-by-side and filled with smaller multicolored squares pull in and delight the eye.
But Bendolph had previously thought that she had left quilting behind. After marrying and moving from Gee’s Bend to Mobile, Alabama, she stopped making quilts—until she visited the Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition. In her words: “When I was coming back from Houston on the bus, I started having visions of quilts … I thought my days of making quilts were over, just a part of my past, like planting corn and picking cotton. But the images wouldn’t go away … So I made another quilt, and another and then another. And I’ve kept on doing it because those images won’t leave me alone.”
“Doorway to a Dream: Prints by Louisiana Bendolph” is on view at Paulson Bott Press, Berkeley, California, Sept. 16th–Nov. 30th, 2014.