Patterns of American History: A Study of Gee’s Bend Quilts
By Amy Jenkins, IMS Art Educator
This winter term all of us in the IMS Art Department made a commitment to study, craft, and immerse ourselves in the art and deep history of the Gee’s Bend Quilters. The Quilters and their resulting work are deeply rooted in ancestral visual memory, the hardships of enslaved peoples, and the resilient spirit and beauty built upon reworking and repurposing worn work clothes, castoff scraps, and flour and cornmeal sacking. We explored and discussed the family histories of the contemporary quilters, the fact that these families were on the same land their enslaved ancestors worked, and spoke of their importance and place in contemporary art today.
What was unexpected was how deeply the students would embrace our journey with their own building of quilts. Students examined the Gee’s Bend Quilts, learned several basic hand stitches, learned how to piece and assemble their own “squares,” embraced restitching when a wrong turn was made, and learned how to piece a quilt and keep going even when fingers were pricked. Over the course of the term, students helped each other, fell into deep conversation while sewing, and marveled over which Gee’s Bend Quilt impacted them the most. Students who ran out of one fabric could understand the perfect imperfections inherent in the Gee’s Bend Quilts, and slip a different scrap in.
This project took the whole term and not only challenged our students’ to learn a new creative skill, it also challenged them to explore the historical context of what they were producing and its relevance to who we are today. We always planned it to be thought-provoking, but never predicted how impactful and all-encompassing it would become for both students and teachers.