Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Quilts and stories

This is a story to go with Claire's story about taking a chance, or seizing an opportunity.

In December of 2002 I saw the "Quilts of Gee's Bend" exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City. I was so moved by the quilts that I stood in line to see the exhibit on two consecutive days. These quilts were made by women who lived in a remote and poor section of Alabama. Gee's Bend was featured in a New York Times Magazine article in 1937 detailing tenant farming.

The women worked in the fields all day, but as they worked, they thought about the quilts they worked on at night, how they might arrange the pieces in the most satisfying way.

They made the quilts partly to keep their families warm in the drafty homes they inhabited. The women did not think they were making art, but they were. We know it now. The quilts have traveled the country and been shown in various museums. The quilters have been compared to other modern artists, such as Paul Klee or Henri Matisse.

The takeaway from the first part of the story is that art will out. Even when much of life is taken up by the hard physical labor of farming, the need to create, to make something beautiful, will not be denied.

The second part of the story: I thought about writing about these quilts in a picture book but thought maybe it was not my story to tell. So I let that thought slide. But the story has been told. In 2008 Patricia McKissack published a picture book about Gee's Bend-- Stitchin' and Pullin' .

In 2010 Irene Latham published Leaving Gee's Bend, a historical novel for middle grade readers. This year we have Belle, the Last Mule of Gee's Bend. by Calvin Alexander Ramsey. This book tells the story, not of the quilts, but of the two Gee's Bend mules that pulled Martin Luther King's casket in the funeral procession. And it manages to get in quite a bit of history, too.

I guess the takeaway from the second part of the story is a reminder to take the chance and write about what we love. I'm not sure if the story of the Gee's Bend quilts ever was my story to tell and I'm glad it has been told, even if not by me. But once in a while, I do feel a whiff of wistfulness ...

I still love the quilts and the story of the quilters--and am bearing down harder now on the stories that I want to tell.


  1. Jackie, I think most of have those wistful moments about stories we thought about writing - and didn't. I guess we have to trust that the ones that we can write will emerge and that ideas come to us every day. I especially liked how you mentioned the different books inspired by Gee's Bend. so many ways to tell a story.

  2. Isn't that true, Claire, and it actually makes me think it's never too late.

    Happy Solstice. More light after today!

  3. I saw that same exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum that year. It was inspiring!

    Regarding the question of whose stories are whose...I remember talking about this with Ellen Levine when she came to a Hamline residency. She's written stories from such a variety of cultural backgrounds. Writers can tell stories from many sources as long as they approach the stories with respect, sensitivity, and integrity. As you say, the most important thing is for the stories to be told well. In this case the story did get written, but there's no way to know in advance that another writer will encounter the story at a time when they can write it.

  4. Sometimes subjects seem to be floating out in the collective unconsciousness and several books on the same topic will get published around the same time. This always fascinates me.

  5. Hi Jackie - wonderful to hear of your love for Gee's Bend. One of the great joys since the release of Leaving Gee's Bend has been connecting with others who have found meaning and significance in the stories told by the women and their quilts. I think any story is yours to tell if it haunts your heart. I also think there is plenty of room for other Gee's Bend stories. Such vibrant history, so many connections to our deepest emotions... I wish you well in whatever stories you choose to tell!