The first time I met Louisiana Bendolph was 10 years ago when she and her mother-in-law Mary Lee Bendolph came to the press in 2005. Both are quilters from the tiny hamlet of Gee’s Bend in Wilcox County, Alabama. The women of Gee’s Bend entered the spot-light in 2003 when their quilts were exhibited at the Whiney Museum of Art. Since that show, their quilts have traveled to numerous national and international venues.
Louisiana stands about 5 foot 4. She is patient and demure and a tiny bit shy, but you can immediately detect strength in her stature.
The stories Louisiana tells of her childhood are vastly different from mine. I am two years her elder, and I remember well the 1970s and my benign day-to-day routine growing up in the suburbs of Boston. Lou’s accounts of those same years reveal a life of hardship that is difficult for me to fathom. She spoke about leaving school to help harvest her family’s cotton crop. They plowed and planted with the help of a donkey. When she talks about her life as a daughter, wife, mother and quilter, her deep connection to her family is evident. Louisiana’s origins give her a straightforward practicality that guides her in times of trouble.
Over the past 10 years, we have done three print projects together. She works in solid colored cotton piecing her work together at the sewing machine. Her compositions are bold and forthright, but her asymmetrical lines are poetic and reveal a complex approach to her art.
Lou is not afraid to show us her strength. In New Generation, a print she made in 2007, she uses a confident composition of ivory, orange and brown. Alternating colored stripes radiate from a central brown strip. As the title suggests, Lou comes from a new generation of quilters who aim to move beyond the cultural obstacles of their communities’ past.
Her strength includes a willingness to speak frankly about what she believes. In 2007, I watched an unwavering Lou spontaneously take to the podium at a U.S. State Department dinner in Washington D.C. In front of 500 spectators, she thanked her mother and the women in her life, and she thanked the Arnett family for their contributions to her community. Louisiana continually champions the quilters of Gee’s Bend, traveling and speaking to audiences all over the world.
Thinking of Lou’s strength and resolve to usher in a new generation, we are pleased that her print New Generation has been chosen to be replicated in tile for the new terminal at the San Francisco International Airport as part of the San Francisco Art Commission’s public art program. The terminal will open to the public on November 13th of this year.
We are grateful to Justine Topfer from the art commission for choosing Lou’s work, to Don Farnsworth and Tallulah Terryll for making the tile, and to Randy Colosky for his help with the installation.
Over the past decade, we have worked with four of the quilters from Gee’s Bend, making numerous prints from quilt tops sewn for this purpose. Two of the quilters, Louisiana Bendolph and Loretta Bennett, along with curator Matt Arnett, joined me in Asheville, North Carolina, last fall to take part in a panel discussion about the translation of quilt to print.
During the panel, Lou and Loretta described their first quilts, made at about age 12. Loretta liked making quilts, and Louisiana did not. Both felt that quilt-making was a practical skill, passed down mother to daughter, whose purpose was to keep the family warm during the winter. Neither saw the practice as art, but as part of the work they had to do alongside farming and cooking.
Warren Wilson College and the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (CCCD) in Asheville cohosted the exhibition Gee’s Bend: From Quilts to Prints. The show was cocurated by Julie Caro, professor of art history at Warren Wilson, and Marilyn Zapf, assistant director of CCCD. Caro has designed two courses around the quilters of Gee’s Bend: “African American Art: Gee’s
Bend” and “Art History Practicum: Gee’s Bend.” Part of the curriculum included planning the exhibition and teasing out all the layers of transformation; quilts to print, quilter to artist, craft to art, unknown to known.
Warren Wilson began as a school for farm children whose parents could not easily afford a college education. It was designed to allow students to earn their tuition by working: facilities crews, farming crews, and cooking crews took part in the daily labor of running the campus while attending classes. Today, the students get to pay tuition and work; there are landscape crews, plumbing and electrical crews, weaving crews, cattle and pig crews, etc. The idea is to take responsibility and build community by learning the work required in any enterprise.
I joined one of Julie’s classes off-site at the Black Mountain College Museum, which happens to be across the street from the CCCD. We watched a short film from the 1980s about Black Mountain College. It existed from 1933 to 1957 and was a precursor to alternative institutions like Warren Wilson, which is just a short drive over the hill. The film consisted of interviews with a few principle figures from the college explaining its truly democratic ideals. The teachers were the owners and the student had a voice on the decision-making council. John Dewey’s principles of education were the mainstay of the interdisciplinary philosophy. Building community was paramount. Everyone toiled to run the campus, build buildings, and design curriculum. Work equalized the residents.
Josef and Anni Albers fled Nazi Germany directly to Black Mountain College and joined the faculty. The Albers’s Bauhaus ideas helped Black Mountain become an incubator for the American avant garde. Experimental art, music, dance, writing poetry, and science attracted faculty and students. Faculty included Buckminster Fuller, Robert Creeley, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Ruth Asawa, and Walter Gropius. Students included Robert Arneson, Allan Kaprow, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, Elaine de Kooning, and Cy Twombly.
Later that day, Marilyn Zapf took us to see both campuses. Black Mountain is now a boy’s camp, but many buildings remain, modernist structures in sharp contrast to the nearby woodsy cabins.
The discipline of work, the autonomy of enterprise, and the responsibility of completion resonate in all of these places. In the Paulson Bott Press studio, Gee’s Bend, Warren Wilson, and Black Mountain, the practice of work for a common goal becomes a habit that frees us all to push further creatively.
The following day, we were interviewed on NPR by Frank Stasio. You can listen at http://wunc.org/post/artistry-rural-alabama-meets-art-world.
At Paulson Bott Press, instinct, and even passion, directs the selection of artists. This is how the press came to work with the women from the Gee’s Bend, Alabama, quilt collective. A quilting center since before the Civil War, Gee’s Bend is known for colorful, quasi-geometric designs that, although based on historical American and African examples, appeal to a modern art sensibility. The highly successful multi-museum tour of Gee’s Bend quilts organized in 2002 by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, brought international fame to this small, rural community. Pam Paulson happened to see that exhibition when it was presented in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art and fell in love. When she showed the catalog to her father, he suggested the press invite the quilters to make prints. Long story short, Pam and Renee Bott were able to interest two generations of quilters –Mary Lee Bendolph, whom Pam calls “ the heart and soul of the Gees Bend quilters,” and her daughter-in-law Louisiana Bendolph.
Once they had a commitment, Pam and Renee needed to figure out how to capture the essence of Gee’s Bend quilts in an entirely different medium. They bought sewing machines so that the women could compose their prints by piecing small quilt tops. The elder artist followed the tradition of using worn clothing that she believed carried the presence of the former owner, while Louisiana Bendolph preferred new, bright, solid-colored fabrics. After the artists and printers chose the best designs for prints, the printers made impressions of the quilted pieces with soft ground. Pam remembers, “Each time we pulled a proof there was a hallelujah or a praise Jesus. Often in a quiet moment Mary Lee would break into a gravelly soulful rendition of a church song accompanied by Lou’s rhythmically syncopated clapping.” A second project included two more quilters, and, like the first, resulted in a dazzling array of images—evoking such modern masters as Paul Klee and Stuart Davis but with a spirit all their own. While it’s true that etchings and quilts are two different animals–obviously the prints have no texture or functionality–the designs translate magnificently from one medium to the other, and, like quilts, etchings are hand-made and in their own way evoke the hand of the maker.
Thanks to their experience at Paulson Bott, the quilters now think of themselves as artists. And, they appreciate that through the distribution of their graphic images their work has become appreciated by a wider public.
I begin with the Gee’s Bend project, because it demonstrates the press’s approach: the artist’s vision comes first; Pam and Renee then find a way, even if it means inventing and developing new techniques, to realize that vision. For Chris Ballantyne, it was printing on Gampi (translucent Japanese paper) and affixing the color prints to plywood so that the grain showed through (an effect the artists was using in his work at the time). For Isca Geenfield-Sanders, Renee, along with Don Farnsworth of Magnolia Press,devised a method of putting a digital image directly onto a copper plate without using a darkroom. And, when Radcliffe Bailey returns to the press next year, they hope to use some of the techniques they mastered in creating a recent series of the artist’s monoprints, which combine sewing, chine colle, printing, dying, and collage. Conversely, Bailey is applying the new tools he learned at the press to his studio work. In other words, at Paulson Bott, artists not only benefit from the broad dissemination of images that multiples afford, but they are expected to approach the medium creatively, to explore, with the master printers as guides, the medium’s unique characteristics. Most importantly, as noted in the cases of Gee’s Bend, and Bailey, just two examples among many, printers and artists working collaboratively can arrive at new techniques and methods that expand not only the possibilities of printmaking but of the creative process itself.
From the beginning Renee and Pam have worked with local artists, recognizing that the San Francisco Bay Area has a vibrant and varied art scene that too often is not adequately acknowledged. They have built strong relationships with such established Bay Area artists as Squeak Carnwath, Christopher Brown, Hung Liu, and Deborah Oropallo, but also support the region’s emerging artists like Kota Ezawa, David Huffman, Shaun O’dell, and Tauba Auerbach, whose careers they have helped foster. The press also collaborates with such prominent, national figures as Martin Puryear, Caio Fonseca, and Kerry James Marshall. There is no house look – something the owners agree is to be avoided. Styles range from Greenfield-Sanders’s charming figurative domestic scenes, to the cartoon realism of Mission School artists Chris Johanson and the late Margaret Kilgallen, to the abstract cosmologies of Ross Bleckner.
Located in a sun-filled studio and gallery in Berkeley, Paulson Bott Press has established itself as a leading intaglio press and publisher, not just on the West Coast, but nationally. Their prints are now found in major museum collections across the country, including the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York; the National Gallery and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., among many others.
While we can’t predict what’s to come as Paulson Bott enters the next phase, based on its history we can be confident that it will be both surprising and, somehow, just right.