Gee’s Bend quilts are the geographically-inspired term for works handcrafted by a multigenerational group of African-American women, consisting of a combination of traditional forms and innovation. Gee’s Bend, Alabama, is a remote, rural community of 275 people (according to the 2010 census). The hand-sewn quilts have a unique historic and stylistic development due to the community of Gee’s Bend’s almost complete isolation from the outside world for the better part of the twentieth century.
Historically, the quilts were first created out of necessity and used for warmth. Using whatever material was available to them, the women worked together and the activity of quilting served as an act of creation and social interaction. One quilter, Bettie Bendolph Seltzer, recalls the materials her mother and mother’s friends used: “At the start all they was making them out of was old clothes, pants, fertilizer sacks, dress tails, and meal and flour sacks, too.” The women taught their daughters, who taught their daughters. What started off as a practical necessity has grown into a thriving tradition. The quilting community of Gee’s Bend has become something of an informal art class, with the elders passing down unique forms of composition. There is a group effort behind each quilt form; the mutually-agreed upon composition is traditional, yet improvisational, and imperfections are incorporated into the work.
The Gee’s Bend quilts are but one example of the ongoing debate regarding the distinction between art and craft. From concept to everyday use or exhibition, Gee’s Bend quilts are considered to be one of the great examples of American art. The quilts are in the collections of major museums across the United States, including The Whitney Museum of American Art and the American Craft Museum.