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Gee’s Bend Quilts

Review: Art Quilts Of The Midwest by Linzee Kull McCray

23309912I remember when it happened. In 1971 The Whitney Museum of American Art did something that sat the “Art World” on its ear. They displayed quilts in a museum setting: Abstract Design in American Quilts “bestowed institutional recognition of the artistry inherent in these humble textiles.”

Quilts have existed, literally, throughout history. While they are made from fabric, and therefore examples are hard to find before Roman times, scraps from that period have been found in digs. The Middle Ages hold many examples of quilted fabrics being used under the metal armor used by knights to shield their bodies from sharp edges and protect them from blows against the metal.

As a child, I remember quilts in wedding chests and on beds in country homes. They were often cherished and handed down by families. I also remember seeing exquisitely hand stitched quilts thrown in the trunks of cars by uncaring family members, and used under cars for changing oil. Quilts often, literally, “got no respect.”

I remember my first quilt show, at the local county fair. I worked for hours on end to stitch a Bargello quilt in all shades of reds. I very carefully chose all my fabrics, carefully matching thread colours to blend, not only to my top but to the floral background I oh-so-very-carefully chose to go with the top. I was soooo proud of that quilt!

Imagine my dismay when the judge, an elderly woman with a tight, lemon-pucker face, said, “You know, you could have won, if you hand just used the proper thread. Quilts are always quilted with WHITE thread!” As I looked at my much loved quilt, I gave up in tears. White thread?!?! All you would see would be the thread!! It would totally take away from my quilt! I gave my quilt away, and didn’t quilt again for years.

A few of the quilts hanging in the Whitney

Things have changed since then. Quilts ARE Art! And isn’t it wonderful? What used to be three layers of fabric (COTTON ONLY!!) batting (COTTON ONLY) and fabric (COTTON ONLY) bound together by thread (WHITE cotton only) to be shown only at the county fair, if you showed them at all, have now become magnificent art forms. And Art Quilts of the Midwest Linzee Kull McCray showcases the works of many of the premiere quilt artists of today. As a writer covering textiles, art, and craft, Linzee Kull McCray wondered just how deeply fiber artists were influenced by their surroundings. Focusing on midwestern art quilters in particular, she put out a call for entries and nearly 100 artists responded; they were free to define those aspects of midwesterness that most affected their work. Just as with any other art form, these artists are influenced by their surroundings, their time period, and their materials, much like the quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama were influenced by theirs. From the functional to the fantastic these 100

The stunning asymmetry and colour use of one of the Gee’s Bend Quilts. All the quilts are made of ‘found’ or cast off fabrics, worn clothing, feed sacks and sometimes, just sometimes, purchased fabrics.


artists work in fiber, certainly, but how they handle their materials is wide-ranging and exciting. All sorts of fibers are used – but how it is handled is deeply based in the idea of quilt as art. From new ways to utilize symmetry and repetition to new forms of dying, painting, uses of three dimensional forms and uses of non-fiber materials such as metals and jewels, the old has become new again, while still hearkening back to its historical roots, philosophy and culture.

Sewing a Quilt. Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Sewing a Quilt. Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 1937 Photo by Arthur Rothstein/Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

If you are interested in art as a whole, or in quilts in particular, this is a beautiful book to add to your collection, whether as a coffee table book to browse at your leisure over a cup of tea, a fount of ideas for your own quilt, or a paean to beauty, this is a gorgeous book to add to your library.


I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a realistic review. All thoughts are my own.


McCray_Jenny Gordy.jpgLinzee Kull McCray

Linzee Kull McCray grew up in California and resides in Iowa. After nearly thirteen years as a writer and editor for the University of Iowa, she is a fulltime freelance writer with a focus on textiles, art, and craft. She is a contributing editor at Stitch magazine and her work appears in Etsy’s blog, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting, Quilt Country, Quilt Sampler, Modern Patchwork, O magazine, and numerous other print and online publications.

Photo credit: Jenny Gordy

The Artists

Marilyn Ampe, St. Paul, Minnesota
Gail Baar, Buffalo Grove, Illinois

Diane Nunez, “Twisted”

Sally Bowker, Cornucopia, Wisconsin
Peggy Brown, Nashville, Indiana
Shelly Burge, Lincoln, Nebraska
Shin-hee Chin, McPherson, Kansas
Sandra Palmer Ciolino, Cincinnati, Ohio
Jacquelyn Gering, Chicago, Illinois
Kate Gorman, Westerville, Ohio
Donna Katz, Chicago, Illinois
Beth Markel, Rochester Hills, Michigan
Diane Núñez, Southfield, Michigan
Pat Owoc, St. Louis, Missouri
BJ Parady, Batavia, Illinois
Bonnie Peterson, Houghton, Michigan
Luanne Rimel, St. Louis, Missouri

“Knowledge” by Luanne Rimel, St. Louis MO

Barbara Schneider, Woodstock, Illinois
Susan Shie, Wooster, Ohio
Martha Warshaw, Cincinnati, Ohio
Erick Wolfmeyer, Iowa City, Iowa

Review: Quilting With A Modern Slant: People, Patterns, and Techniques Inspiring the Modern Quilt Community by Rachel May

modern quilt
Due to publish January 8, 2014
Storey Publishing

To say that I am torn in my reactions to Quilting With A Modern Slant is an understatement. Part of me liked the book. A larger part absolutely hates it.  But then, that is what ‘Art’ is all about, isn’t it? It reaches out and changes boundaries, pulling reactions, whether good or bad, from the soul and the heart.

Rachel May describes her book this way: Modern quilting allows artists the freedom to play with traditions and take liberties with fabrics, patterns, colors, stitching, and the ways in which they all connect. She then offers works from 70 different modern-day quilters, exploring their take on the subject of modern quilt art.

One of the things I find odd about the premise of the book is its heavy reliance on the art of the Gee’s Bend Quilters as a “modern” concept on quilting. The Gee’s Bend Quilt tradition began in the 19th century, in the Gee’s Bend community of Alabama. A cotton plantation belonging to Joseph Gee was the starting point for a style of geometric and highly improvisational quilt making brought about by the necessity of staying warm in rough, unheated slave shacks. Today, the quilts have been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. In the words of Alvia Wardlaw, the curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, “The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quilt making. There’s a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to comp that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making.”

“The Quilts of Gee’s Bend by Arnett, Wardlaw, Livingston, and Beardsley.
Gee’s Bend, The Architecture of the Quilt by Arnett, Arnett, Gordon, Herman, Mott, Blum, Whitley, Wallach and Cubbs.

First, I must say that the power and beauty of the Gee’s Bend’s Quilts is absolutely breathtaking. There are several books you can read that describe the quilts and their makers. Those listed here are only two of many volumes written over the years.

The quilts are made with what could be obtained in the day, showing the worn knees of work pants and the leftover pieces of dresses so worn as to be nearly indistinguishable in pattern. The careful stitching and clean lines are clear indicators of the care and thought that went into each one. The quilts were designed for use, but also an eye to beauty.

While many of the quilts in the book honour these concepts of improvisation and beauty, clean lines and careful stitches, others, well, others do not. Instead, they seem to rejoice in ugly fabrics, clashing colours, and a jarring lack of beauty in line and concept. Others are so blatantly derivative of the Gee’s Bend Quilts as to be nothing other than copies.

There are good things about the book. The segments on natural dying are quite good, as are the segments on paper piecing and hand quilting. However, all of these are better, and more thoroughly described, in other volumes.  I believe what pushes me into the ‘hate’ column with the book, overall, comes back to May’s description of, “What Is Modern Quilting?” In her own words, “Most quilters agree that it has something to do with a sense of experimentation. Modern quilters might take a traditional block or pattern and innovate to turn it into something “fresh.”” And here is my problem. Most of the quilts and concepts in the book are so derivative as to lack any sense of ‘new’ or ‘modern’. Instead, they fall back on ’MidCentury Modern’, that old standby from more than 50 years ago in the 1950’s and still so popular today. Even the fabric patterns are derivative of the 1950s, with some of those ugly, less-than-awe-inspiring 1970’s prints thrown in for good measure. Having started my own quilting journey in the 1970’s, I know all about ugly fabrics!

While some of the artists seem to have given great consideration to beauty, colour, line, and simplicity, or with a message,  (Denyse Schmidt, Denise Burge) others seem to define the concept of “Modern” as grabbing the ugliest fabrics in their rag bag and stitching them together with no thought for any of these concepts of design (names withheld to protect the innocent. Or my possible lack of artistic eye, whichever.)

Original Oil Painting
on Gallery Wrapped Canvas
“Chartres Street in Bloom” by Diane Millsap
48″ Wide x 30″ High x 1 1/2″ Deep
Art property of Diane Millsap. All Rights Reserved.
Click photo to go to website.

When it comes right down to it, if you are a fan of Gee’s Bend Quilts, you may or may not like this book. I love the originals; I am not so taken with most of the work in this book. There are some brilliant high-points in the book, such as when Nancy Crow talks about the quilts of Anna Williams, an elderly, illiterate quilters from Louisiana whose work, completed without patterns or rulers, shows absolute lyrical brilliance in her work.  All in all, this is definitely a book you should glance through before making a decision. Maybe my discomfort with the book is the fact that I am not a fan of the “Modern Art Movement” or “Deconstructivism. I have quite wide ranging tastes, but my favorites are works by artists such as Diane Millsap or Jos Coufreur.

Audrey Hepburn.
Acrylic On Canvas.
Painting by Jos Coufreur.
All Rights Reserved.
Available through Bryce Gallery, New Zealand.

This just doesn’t do it for me. Before you ask, I have widely diverse tastes in the works of quilters. Everything from the busy, ‘folk ‘ stylings of Susan Shie pieces to the meticulous Baltimore Album style of wonderful quilters like the often unacknowledged quilters who made complex appliqued Baltimore Album Quilts such as this one, in the Maryland Historical Society Collection. My personal favorites lean toward brilliant colour and intense quilting, such as anything at all by Jacqueline de Jonge. It’s all a matter of taste.

Susan Shie
Wooster, Ohio
Finished July 8, 2003
Painted on muslin fabric, not stretched or framed.
Painted with Airpen, brush on Deka Permanent fabric paints. All hand quilted, embroidered, and beaded.
12.5 x 12.5 inches
Property of Susan Shie. All Rights Reserved.
Photo courtesy of The Art of the Quilt.
Baltimore Album Quilt, c. 1848, catalog number 22, Maker(s) unknown, Baltimore, Maryland, plain and printed cottons, chintz, velvet; cotton, silk and wool embroidery, quilted in diamonds and embroidered, 282 x 275 cm, Maryland Historical Society, 1970.19.1, Gift of Mrs. C. Creston Cathcart)
Photo property of Maryland Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.

Overall, in my opinion, this book is recommended to some, not to others. Look before you buy.


I received my copy of the book from Storey Publishing in return for an honest review.

All opinions are my own, all artworks are the property of the artists.

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