Acclaimed Gee’s Bend quilter Mary Lee Bendolph subject of new exhibition at MHCAM
Related programming includes a lecture by noted art historian Dr. Alvia J. Wardlaw, a musical performance, and a quilt-themed community day
SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. — The Mount Holyoke College Art Museum presents “Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph,” the first solo exhibition of the acclaimed Gee’s Bend, Alabama quilter, on view through May 27.
Using mostly hand-torn remnants of recycled clothing, Mary Lee Bendolph has created more than 150 quilts in her lifetime. Her improvisational style and bold adaptations of traditional African American quilting designs earned her a place in the watershed touring exhibitions “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” (2002) and “The Architecture of the Quilt” (2006) and an NEA National Heritage Fellowship. Her quilts have graced Hallmark cards and U.S. postage stamps.
“Piece Together” is Bendolph’s first solo exhibition, and the first to examine works from five decades of her life. Accompanied by a richly-illustrated, 80-page scholarly catalogue, the exhibition considers the material and biographical significance of Bendolph’s quilts, as well as the different spaces they occupy, from family beds to museum walls to the printing press. An adapted version of the exhibition will travel to the List Gallery, Swarthmore College from September 6 through October 28, 2018.
Bendolph was born at the height of the Great Depression in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, an historically black community with a remarkable concentration of multi-generational quilters. The earliest quilt on view dates from 1965 and comprises clothing belonging to several of Bendolph’s seven surviving children. At the time, her house had no electricity. Like many of Bendolph’s female relatives and neighbors in Gee’s Bend, she made quilts to keep her family warm and to make practical use of clothing she could no longer patch. Decades later, when she had access to a wider range of materials and more time for quilting, these motivations remained essential to her craft.
The exhibition includes more than a dozen quilts created after 2000, when Bendolph’s creative energies were kindled by the national spotlight on Gee’s Bend and its rich quilting tradition. Of particular note are three quilts made in memory of her husband, Rubin Bendolph Sr.—each an exuberant composition with surprising color combinations, textures, and patterns made from his work and dress clothes. Another highlight is a quilt honoring her mother, Aolar Carson Mosely, paired with audio of her favorite hymn performed by Bendolph and her daughter, fellow quilter Essie B. Pettway.
“Mary Lee Bendolph’s quilts are objects with many meanings,” says MHCAM’s Associate Curator and the exhibition’s chief organizer, Hannah W. Blunt, who worked closely on “Piece Together” with Bendolph’s son, Rubin Jr., and Weatherbie Curator of Education and Academic Programs Ellen M. Alvord. “It is impossible to categorize them as works of art or craft or utility—they are at once functional necessities and aesthetic wonders, family documents and symbolic memorials. This exhibition leaves definitions at the door and embraces the hybridity of Bendolph’s marvelous quilts.”
Visitors will enjoy touchable displays, a hands-on quiltmaking activity, and an extensive timeline of Bendolph’s life and community, all of which provide context for her creations. One gallery is dedicated to works from Bendolph’s recent foray into printmaking through collaborations with Paulson Bott Press (now Paulson Fontaine). These lush images reveal her keen eye for the nuances of fabric, as translated from quilts to etchings.
“Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph” is the centerpiece of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum’s “Diverse Voices Initiative.” Supported by a grant from The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation and the gifts of individual donors, the initiative aims to engage the College’s diverse undergraduates as well as K-12 students from nearby public schools through innovative exhibitions and community outreach.