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.