Bold Statement

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.

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Louisiana Bendolph in the Paulson Bott Press studio, 2005

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.

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Louisiana Bendolph, New Generation, 2007

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.

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Randy Colosky, Jenn Doyle Crane, Justine Topfer, Don Farnsworth and Tallulah Terryll at Magnolia Editions, 2015

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.

Work

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.

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From Left to Right: Juile Caro, Matt Arnett, Louisiana Bendolph, Loretta Bennett, Marilyn Zapf & Pam Paulson
Ashville WWC gallery with LOU Loretta and Julie
Warren Wilson College Gallery

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.

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Prints and working proofs by Mary Lee Bendolph at the Center for Craft Creativity and Design, Asheville, NC

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.

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Former Black Mountain College campus

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.

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Louisiana and Loretta at the Asheville public radio station