TOPSHAM — “Do It Your Way: Gee’s Bend Quilts and Quilters in Maine” is an exhibition on view now through August 30 at Maine Fiberarts, 13 Main Street. The exhibition includes 12 large quilts created by the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama — a group that has been quilting since the 1960s and who became famous for their freeform and original style.

In 2002, art collector Will Arnett recognized these quilts as important works of art and organized an exhibition which began at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and travelled to nine major museums across the country including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Whitney Museum in New York City. The quilts and the quilt makers of Gee’s Bend garnered national media attention, including articles in Newsweek, O, Smithsonian Magazine and Martha Stewart Living. In 2006, the United States Post Office issued Gee’s Bend quilt commemorative stamps.

Boykin, Alabama, the home of most of the Gee’s Bend quilters, has been described as one of the most isolated villages in the U.S. Here, undeterred by a scarcity of materials and long days working in their gardens or in the cotton fields, generations of black women have developed a unique tradition of quilting.

Traditional ideas and sewing techniques are passed on, back and forth in this tightly knit community, but the highest praise is saved for quilts that follow their own inspiration. In Gee’s Bend, quilting rules are broken. Often unable to afford new materials, the makers use pieces from feed bags, worn patches from blue jeans, and other incongruous materials together in one quilt.

A seemingly quiet cotton top deviates with one shocking red flannel edge. Corduroy remnants, available for a while from an adjacent clothing factory, even polyester—nothing is wasted or forbidden. Dissimilar materials can be found side by side. If a traditional log cabin pattern is established in one-quarter of the quilt, then in the other three-quarters, that pattern is twisted to other ends, turned sideways or upside down and backwards, done in many or in one color instead of two—becoming more interesting as the rules are challenged.

The quilts demand that the viewer, see, feel, and deal with the unpredictable.

Unlike African American “story quilts,” Gee’s Bend quilts are not narratives. They are expressive in the way that the best abstract paintings are—more like “jazz,” than “folk song.” Patterns may start from tradition, but then are improvised upon. Corners do not always abut precisely. Lines need not always be straight. Ripping has its own charms. Once started, often a pattern is exploded, turned and run askew. If it is pieced more regularly, then colors are used contradictorily.

This exhibition marks the first time the quilts and the quilters have been north of Boston and is part of an exciting collaboration. A second exhibition of different quilts takes place at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Aug. 2-Sept. 7. Finally, Fiber College in Searsport, initiator of the events, offers classes and special programming to celebrate the women.

Four of the Gee’s Bend quilters—China Pettway, Stella Mae Pettway, Revile Mosley and Lucy Mingo—will teach classes between Sept. 2-8. The evening of Sept.3 has been reserved for a public New England boiled dinner and forum and gospel singing (during which two quilts will be raffled) at the Searsport Congregational Church moderated by Suzette McAvoy of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Tickets for the dinner are available through www.fibercollege.org.

Since the year 2000, Maine Fiberarts has hosted exhibitions that change every two or three months. This Fall, the group will bring shows of contemporary fiber art to both the Glickman Family Library at USM in Portland, and to the galleries at Maine Fiberarts. The statewide arts nonprofit currently hosts a free online Fiber Resource Guide, Bulletin, and Folio to promote Maine’s fiber community. Visit the group in Topsham Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., or online at www.mainefiberarts.org.


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