I just finished reading The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s about a slave owner, Sarah, in early 1800’s Charleston and the slave, Handful, she is given for her 11th birthday. It’s based on the life of the Grimke Sisters, early Abolitionists and Women’s Rights Advocates. It’s about identity and freedom (at one point Handful tells Sarah that she may be a slave of the body, but Sarah is a slave of the mind) and being true to ourselves no matter the risk or loss that may come from it. I could relate.
Through out the book Handful’s mother is creating a Story Quilt that tells the story of her life. She sews a picture using applique, depicting each defining moment in her life. Some of her other quilts use symbols such as black triangles to represent flying blackbirds, telling the myth of when her ancestors could fly.
At the back of Kidd’s book is a list of historical references, that’s where I found the book Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts, by Maude Southwell Wahlman. I don’t know a lot about quilts. I took a quilting class once when I was in high school and vowed never to quilt again. I found it tedious and nerve-wracking. But I’ve always appreciated the work and creativity that goes into quilting. Quilters were making Op Art a hundred years before it became a style of painting in the 1960’s. And although I understand the importance of it and intellectually appreciate quilting, I’ve never been emotionally touched by it until I saw the Quilts of Gee’s Bend. Those quilts touched me so deeply, at a time when I had given up on making art, that I was inspired to create again.
I know now that its in the imperfection, in what seems to be randomness in color and design that speaks to me. It’s in the way the corners don’t meet and the squares that aren’t square, that the emotion and uniqueness of each quilt and it’s maker comes through. It’s each woman’s individual intuition, not a set of rules, that is in the fore front of such quilts.
I read in Wahlman’s book that the” …busy, hard-to-read asymmetrical designs and multiple patterns…protect against evil, enslaving spirits”… by confusing them…”before they could do any harm”. This explains one of the things I love about many of the Gee’s Bend quilts. It’s the way they carry your eye, haphazardly around the quilt, never finding a place to light, a center, beginning or end.
The quilt above made by Arester Earl from Altanta, Georgia (not a Gee’s Bend quilter) is the perfect example of what draws me to this type of quilt. It’s filled with emotion and movement. It has a mystical quality, like some of the ancient cave paintings I’ve seen photos of. They seem to move between worlds. Shifting and transporting me from one space to another as I look at them. (not that I could define those spaces they are, for me, beyond words) Looking at this quilt does the same. It speaks of the imbalance and imperfection and beauty of life all at the same time. It’s based in this world, a utilitarian quilt, but like the Cathedrals were built to do, it’s complexity and beauty is transformative, yet, unlike the Cathedrals, it never stops speaking of being human.