This collection of quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is hardly a random sampling from African-American communities in Alabama. But still, the question arises, why were so many twentieth-century Alabama quilters so good? Even when their work is reproduced as postage stamps (which is how I first saw them), their designs are eye-catching. The pieces are impressive in their original wall-size dimensions, which is surprising because hanging fabric cannot hold tension in edges or lines. The dynamic of the overall design is so overwhelming that the eye must visually compensate to make lines seem straighter than they really are.
Only one quilt (and the only one that’s anonymous) is consistently and painstakingly symmetric. All the others encourage the eyes to ramble, seeking various rhythms and patterns among similar shapes, colors and sizes. There’s usually a feel-good sense of slowly spinning outward from the center. The robust inventiveness suggests that these women might have been competing to entertain each other in their small, quiet towns of Pink Lily, Boligee and Gee’s Bend, Alabama.
Some of the quilts feel suitable for private, even religious introspection. Outstanding among them is the quilt by Mary Lee Bendolph (born 1935), who only seems to have stopped finding rhythms when she ran out of cloth.
Others feel so noisy, it’s like you’ve been invited into a busy home with pots boiling, dogs barking and children crying. And then there’s Yvonne Wells (born 1940), a Tuscaloosa school teacher who felt a calling to tell the kind of upbeat stories that children are supposed to hear. An entire gallery in the show is devoted to her pictorializations of the civil-rights movement and other great stories. She is so recklessly creative with material, design and narrative that each piece feels like a one-of-a-kind miracle, combining the undisciplined freedom of a child with the perseverance of an adult.
These quilts exemplify a joyful, domestic life though, since all these African-American women grew up in the deep South decades before civil rights, that good life might be mostly attributable to their stubborn insistence on having one. As gallery signage suggests, they often did not consider themselves to be artists so much as homemakers, though it’s hard to believe they are all unaware of their own virtuosity. (Chris Miller)
Through June 22 at the DePaul Art Museum, 935 West Fullerton.