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July Issue 2010

Burroughs-Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach, SC, Offers Quilt Exhibit

The Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach, SC, is presenting the exhibit, A Survey of Gee's Bend Quilts, a fresh look at the quilting legacy of Gee's Bend, AL, on view through Oct. 3, 2010.

As with earlier Gee's Bend quilt exhibitions, this exhibit represents the explosive interest in these nationally esteemed quilts from an isolated, rural Alabama community. First viewed in 2002 in the landmark exhibition The Quilts of Gee's Bend and followed in 2005 with Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, these vivid, tradition-defying quilts have graced the walls of many of the country's major art museums and have elicited praise such as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced" (The New York Times, 2002).

The exhibition will feature 20 quilts dating from 1949 to 2006. Divided into four sections (The Fabric of Time, Variations on a Theme, Spheres of Influence and The Tradition Lives On), the show delves into the history, aesthetics, artistic influence and the future of Gee's Bend quilts. Along with the quilts, the exhibition will feature a collection of 10 original limited-edition aquatint etchings of quilt designs created by Gee's Bend quilters working with master printmakers at Paulson Bott Press in Berkley, CA.

In conjunction with A Survey of Gee's Bend Quilts, the Museum will also present Linda Day Clark: The Gee's Bend Photographs, an installation of 25 images by the Baltimore photographer and fine art professor who has made annual trips to photograph in Gee's Bend since an initial assignment with The New York Times in 2002. Clark's photographs capture the richness of the rural landscape as well as the strong sense of community forged by the women who are carrying on the quilt-making tradition.

The quilts in the exhibition are drawn from the collection of Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta, a non-profit foundation for the support of African-American vernacular art, founded by William Arnett. Arnett first traveled to Gee's Bend in 1997 in search of Annie Mae Young, whose quilt he had seen pictured in a book on African-American quilters. He discovered a community of about 750 residents isolated on a U-shaped sliver of land on the Alabama River, an hour away from the county seat of Camden, the closest source of supplies, schools and medical services. Within that community, Arnett discovered a breathtaking quilting tradition, unlike anything he'd ever seen. Geographically cut off, the women of Gee's Bend created quilts from whatever materials were available, in patterns of their own imaginative designs. Since the mid-19th century African-American women in this tiny rural community had been producing visually stunning works, transforming an essential necessity into an art form through quilts that expressed their stories of family, community and basic human survival.

Gee's Bend was named for Joseph Gee, a white landowner who settled on the land in 1818 with 18 enslaved blacks he brought with him from North Carolina. When he died, he left his estate and 47 slaves to two nephews who went on to sell the cotton plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845. After the Emancipation many of the descendents of the slaves remained on the Pettway Plantation to work as sharecroppers and tenant farmers until the late 1930s when the federal government purchased the land from the white landowners and sold it back to the black farmers whose many generations had toiled on the land.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) established a pilot project to explore cooperative farming, and the community became the subject of prominent FSA photographers, including Marion Post Wolcott and Arthur Rothstein. Over time, the hopeful note of the FSA era faded as the mechanization of farming brought hardships to these small farmers, causing many to leave the area. Those who remained on their land suffered further when a dam was constructed on the Alabama River in 1962 and thousands of acres of Gee's Bend's most fertile land was flooded. It was also in the 60s that the "Benders" lost the ferry service that took them across the river to Camden, the county seat of Wilcox County.

Martin Luther King had visited the Gee's Benders and inspired them at a time when not a single black person was registered to vote in Wilcox County. Their efforts to register resulted in the cessation of ferry service, which was not restored until the fall of 2006. Quilting also brought attention to the community in the 60s when Francis Walter, a Civil Rights activist and Episcopal priest, encouraged the women to create the Freedom Quilting Bee (still active today and the longest running black cooperative in the country) to market their quilts to upscale stores and galleries in New York City.

To enhance A Survey of Gee's Bend Quilts, the Museum will offer a full schedule of programming and related events throughout the summer and into the fall. Stitching Stories: Conversations on Quilts, Community and the Artists of Gee's Bend, supported in part by The Humanities Council SC, will present 12 programs, one each Wednesday afternoon in July and August. Other Wednesday programs include the introduction of Brookgreen People, a newly created one-woman show by Coastal Carolina University professor and Gullah lorist Veronica Davis Gerald, based on slave narratives recorded during the Work Progress Administration along the Waccamaw Neck by Genevieve Wilcox Chandler. A reader's theater production of Gee's Bend, a play by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, will provide a rich dramatization of the history and heritage of this unusual southern African-American community and its quilting tradition. Local African-American quilter Vermelle Rodrigues will share From a Gullah Slave Cabin to the White House - the Michelle Obama quilt she and The Quilting Circle from the Committee of African American History Observances created to illuminate the first lady's Georgetown Gullah heritage. The quilt was displayed during the 2009 inaugural celebration at the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

African-American scholar Dr. Corrie Clairborne, a professor from Claflin University, Orangeburg, SC, will give several presentations at the Museum, including a conversation on the African roots of the Gee's Bend quilting tradition. She will be joined by West African drummer Fode Moussa Camara, who will perform and give a drumming workshop. Several filmmakers will be on hand to show and discuss film projects on Gee's Bend, and photographer Linda Day Clark will be discussing her Gee's Bend photographs and experiences. Also visiting the Museum will be author Irene Latham, whose recently published Leaving Gee's Bend provides a suspenseful and richly detailed story for young readers. For a complete listing of programs and times, contact the Museum at 843/238-2510 or visit the Museum's website at (www.MyrtleBeachArtMuseum.org).

Museum visitors will have an opportunity to experience a "quilting bee" environment as they help to quilt a quilt top pieced by local African-American quilters. Films on Gee's Bend will also be available each day for viewing, and music from Gee's Bend, recorded in the 1940s and in early 2000, will be played in the galleries.

A Survey of Gee's Bend Quilts and its programs is supported in part by grants from The Humanities Council SC, the AVX Kyocera Foundation, Bank of North Carolina, Burroughs & Chapin Company, Inc., The City of Myrtle Beach, EASY 105.9/EASY 100.7, Piggly Wiggly, Reliance Trust and WMBF News.

For further information check our SC Institutional Gallery listings, call the Museum at 843/238-2510 or visit (www.MyrtleBeachArtMuseum.org).

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