The Phillips Collects: Gee’s Bend Quilts

The Phillips Collection has recently acquired five Gee’s Bend Quilts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, created by African American female quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Dedicated to promoting African American artists and traditions from the southern United States, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation has a large collection of works by the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, a remote, historically black community in Alabama. Dating back to the early 20th century, the women of Gee’s Bend have created hundreds of quilts; their uniqueness resulting from geographical isolation and cultural continuity as generations of women developed visual conversations through this artistic process. The quilts, created from recycled clothing and fabrics, feature varying patterns including abstraction, concentric squares, and geometric shapes, and include several levels of symbolism—a visual language that complements the Phillips’s collection of American modernism and broadens our understanding of modern art. The works represented by Souls Grown Deep Foundation reveal the complex history and culture of the African American South, and we are honored to have these stories be part of our growing permanent collection.

The five quilts acquired by the museum were created by Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935), Aolar Mosley (1912-1999) , Arlonzia Pettway (1923-2008), Malissia Pettway (1914-1997), and Lucy T. Pettway (1921-2004). Three other institutions have also recently acquired pieces from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation: the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

Souls Grown Deep explains some of the significance of the materials and patterns of the quilts:

Arlonzia Pettway, Lazy Gals, c. 1975, Corduroy, 89 x 81 in., The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2019, Photo credit Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

In 1972, the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative based in Alberta, Alabama, near Gee’s Bend, secured a contract with Sears, Roebuck to produce corduroy pillow covers. Made of a wide‐wale cotton corduroy, the covers came in a variety of colors including “gold,” “avocado leaf,” “tangerine,” and “cherry red.” Production of the Sears pillow covers left little room for personal creativity, as labor at the Freedom Quilting Bee was divided to maximize daily output. Yet despite the standardized and repetitive process involved in producing the pillow covers, the availability of corduroy, a fabric seldom used before by the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers, stimulated a profound creative response. Leftover lengths and scraps of corduroy were taken home by workers at the Bee. Given to friends and family or bundled for sale within the community, the scraps were then transformed from standardized remnants into vibrant and individualized works of art.

Aolar Mosely, Blocks, c. 1955, Cotton, 75 x 83 in., The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2019, Photo credit Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Aolar Mosely lost most of her own quilts in a fire in 1984. One of the few to survive is of the most basic and poignant sort, composed of random but more or less rectangular blocks.

Malissia Pettway, Housetop, c. 1960, Cotton, synthetics, corduroy, 81 x 81 in., The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2019. Photo credit Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Along County Road 29, many women refer to any quilt dominated by concentric squares as a “Housetop,” which reigns as the area’s most favored “pattern.” Its all‐around simplicity hosts many experiments in formal reduction and, at the same time, offers a compositional flexibility unchallenged by other multipiece patterns. The “Housetop,” from the composite block down to its constituent pieces, echoes the right angles of the quilt’s borders, initiating visual exchanges between the work’s edges and what is inside. Traditional African American “call and response,” a ritual technique of music and religious worship, is intrinsic to the target‐like push and pull among elements. The feedback effects have mesmerized and inspired generations of Gee’s Bend quiltmakers. Conceived broadly, the “Housetop” is an attitude, an approach toward form and construction. It begins with a medallion of solid cloth, or one of an endless number of pieced motifs, to anchor the quilt. After that, “Housetops” share the technique of joining rectangular strips of cloth so that the end of a strip’s long side connects to one short side of a neighboring strip, eventually forming a kind of frame surrounding the central patch; increasingly larger frames or borders are added until a block is declared complete.

All the World Is in Our United States

As the Phillips honors World Refugee Day and celebrates the opening of The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, we reflect on founder Duncan Phillips’s vision for his museum and his belief in the ability of art to demonstrate our shared humanity. In his essay for the exhibition The American Paintings of The Phillips Collection (April 9–May 30, 1944) at the Phillips Memorial Gallery (as the museum was called then), he wrote about the global language of art and specifically the unique history of American art—we hope that our visitors this summer experience this global connection in our galleries. 

Here is an excerpt from his 1944 essay:

“I believe fervently that art is international, a universal means of expression extending across boundaries and overcoming the barriers of trade, race, and language. There has never seemed to be a time when our Gallery was willing to devote all of its unfortunately limited space to either American or European paintings. We have always had loan exhibitions and we have always had rooms in which the pictures have been grouped according to instructive contrasts or affinities without specific reference to national labels. We have felt that the distinctions in our painters both of the past and of the present, gain in significance by being mingled and compared with what is best in the painters of other lands.”

The Phillips Collection Main Gallery, 1940s

The Phillips Collection Main Gallery, 1940s

“It is a fact too little known that the bulk of our Collection consists of American paintings. Now and again it may be wise to review what we are assembling. But it is a special event, this exhibition. Our American paintings will hang on the walls of all our galleries and give some idea of the scope of our interests and the character of our choices….”

“American art is only attaining to its maturity in being as free and hospitable as America itself. This has become increasingly true since the start of the second world war in Europe. Celebrities of our Collection (Eugene Berman for instance) who had entered it a few years ago as Europeans have since become American citizens. Recently naturalized Americans from Russia, Hungary, Roumania, and Spain are included in the present exhibition. Now more than ever before American art means international art and the studios of our Cosmopolis can help us in the necessary task of growing world-minds for our manifest destiny. In our country there is bound to be a fusion of various sensitivities, a unification of differences. We can afford to blur the clean cut edge of our creative colloquialisms for the compensating benefit of shedding some of our provincial self satisfactions. Our art, like our national aim, can point the way to a new world of neighborly citizen states in which unity in variety and interdependence are taken for granted.”

In order to highlight the important role of immigrants in the US, the Phillips briefly removed artworks by immigrants from the galleries, including Willem de Kooning’s Asheville (1948), demonstrating the gaps that would exist in American art without them. De Kooning immigrated to the US from the Netherlands in 1926 and became a citizen in 1962. Photo: Miguel Perez

In May 2019, in order to highlight the important role of immigrants in the US, the Phillips briefly removed artworks by immigrants from the galleries, including Willem de Kooning’s Asheville (1948), demonstrating the gaps that would exist in American art without them. De Kooning immigrated to the US from the Netherlands in 1926 and became a citizen in 1962. Photo: Miguel Perez

“In this brief word of introduction there is no need to write even a condensed opinion on the state of American painting today. Nor is this the place for an outline history of the changes in our reactions to influences form older cultures. Suffice it to say that instead of the exaggerated humility as to our standing as artists which prevailed more or less from 1870 to 1930 (and especially perhaps in the Nineteen-twenties when we were discovering the distinction of our brilliant French contemporaries) and instead of the widespread reaction in the Thirties, which its aggressive chauvinism which propagated the “American Scene,” instead of these opposite extremes of adolescent nationalism in art we are now assimilating world wide aesthetic ideas regarding them as our heritage. All the world contributes to our spiritual and creative resources since all the world is contained in our United States. Realism, romanticism, classicism, impressionism, expressionism, and various phases of abstract constructivism, we have practitioners of all these points of departure and these ancient seeing habits.”

“In the Phillips Memorial Gallery we propose to continue selecting what we consider good examples of the recurring manifestations of art’s perennial many-mindedness….Art, in its most essential social function, would endure as the expression of The Individual and of his kindred spirits.”

The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is on view through September 22.

Ranjani Shettar: Making Earth Songs

This spring, the Phillips is excited to present Ranjani Shettar: Earth Songs for a Night Sky as part of the Intersections contemporary art series. In February 2019, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović visited Ranjani Shettar at her studio in Karnataka, India, to look at and discuss her work and inspiration.

Join Ranjani and Vesela for a conversation at the Phillips on May 16 at 6:30 pm.

Ranjani Shettar and Vesela Sretenović discuss an installation in progress.

Ranjani Shettar and Vesela Sretenović discuss an installation in progress in her studio.

VS: Let’s start with the title for your upcoming Intersections project, Earth Songs for a Night Skywhere does it come from?

RS: My titles mostly happen toward the end. At the beginning I have a general impression of the show and as the works are being made the vocabulary develops slowly and the title comes from there, gradually. In this case, the title came from my daily life, my surroundings, the jungle and the sky, but it’s also universal in a sense that when you live in a remote place like I do, you experience things in solitude, more vividly and closer to their natural habitat. Here I wanted to create something light, melodic, and joyful, something like when you sing a song with your heart and you are happy! Of course, there are so many things that are not right in this world and I do want to take them into account, but I am a person full of hope and I want to emphasize the state of hopefulness and the positive aspect of things.

VS: “Songs” in your title brings to mind Kandinsky’s Klänge (in English Sounds), his 1913 book of poems and woodcut illustrations. Your works seems to me like a dance to Kandinsky’s “sounds.”

RS: Perhaps, but Kandinsky calls for sounds, and I call for songs. For me, sounds and songs are different things. A sound can be anything, while as song is about synthesized sounds; in other words you chose sounds to make a song. And then you sing a song! Kandinsky’s words and images are sounds, they are simple and I love his visual poetry.

VS: Your creative process is extremely laborious, and you love it. Earlier you said that the meaning is in the process. How so?

RS: Well, so much happens in the process of making; there is a lot of practice behind a concept, and it is this ongoing engagement on a daily basis that is the most fulfilling, more so than the final product. The slowness of making and exploration of materials matters greatly, and what comes out of that is a slow growth, which is what interests me the most.

VS: And where does your process start? with sketching? drawing?

RS: It starts in the mind, but parallel with the material. I think of it as two-way. As a sculptor I am attached to my materials but also to the form, something that wants to come out. My mental image is projected over a material and the process connects the two. The hardest part of the process is when I am not doing anything physically, when I am thinking and getting ready to start. But once I start working it is the happiest time and I don’t want it to end. There is a lot of problem solving and decision making during the process of making, some are conceptual, but most are technical problems. I enjoy the hands-on, trial-and-error aspect of the process very much.

VS: Given the interconnection of process and materials, tell us more about your choices of materials?

RS: At the beginning I would try out everything that I could lay my hands on. I would hop from one material to another, always learning something new. But with time I realized that the wider my choices were, the harder it was to be ecologically sensitive and responsible. I used paper, plastic, industrial materials, glue, just about anything. Now I have narrowed down my choices and work primarily with organic materials such as wood, fabric, treads, pigments, and beeswax.

Ranjani Shettar looking at an installation in progress.

Ranjani Shettar looking at an installation in progress in her studio.

VS: Where does your work come from? What motivates it?

RS: My work comes from a need to express what I imagine rather than what I see or feel—it is about imaginable possibilities of the physical world and its moving forces. I think what motivates it is three-dimensional form. The form usually comes from within the mind but also from the natural world and surroundings, like geometric forms which I then try to transform into more organic shapes. I am drawn to things that can stretch and bend, that are pliable or mutable. Subsequently, this elasticity informs the final form.

VS: Were you always drawn to abstraction?

RS: No, I started with more representational forms but slowly broke away from that. My training was in figurative art but I was never interested in objective renderings. I was drawn to pure form more than anything. And I have always loved sculpture—three-dimensionality, materiality, volume, space—rather than flat surface.

VS: Your versatility of techniques and craftsmanship is impressive.

RS: I love learning different crafts and new skills. I love design and making nice looking objects. I don’t like to have assistants—the pleasure is in the making and I want to keep that pleasure to myself.

VS: And what happens when the project is done? Does it feel empty?

RS: You see, emotional connection to my work is also very important to me. Over the years I learned to always work on multiple works at once and leave some works incomplete. That way I have something to return to—an emotional anchor!

Visiting an indigo dyeing and weaving workshop.

Visiting an indigo dyeing and weaving workshop.

VS: Let’s talk about the Phillips project . . . still in process as we speak but coming to its completion soon.

RS: When you invited me to visit the site in order to propose the project, I spent some time walking around and found the galleries in the historic house very intimate, domestic, cozy, and I liked that feel very much. And the wall that divides the two adjacent galleries on the second floor was very interesting to me. Then I thought to create a works that wraps around it—thus responding to the specificity of the architecture—directing how one navigates through the space. That particular piece, comprised of many parts, is made of stainless steel, muslin fabric, and indigo. But instead of dying my fabric, which I have done in the past, here I use indigo as paint for the first time. Being at the Phillips I saw clearly in my mind that the piece ought to be in blue; indigo blue presented itself as a great contrast to the monumental 19th-century architecture with fireplaces and their wooden mantels.

VS: But then, next to this fluid multi-part work in fabric and indigo, we have dense, wooden sculptures, beautifully carved. How do they relate to each other?

RS: For me, it is about a spectrum. If you are a singer singing in three different octaves, you read the notes together to strike an emotion and create harmony. So it is about spectrum or the “whole” made of parts.

VS: Speaking of the whole and the parts, the third part/octave of the project is a small installation made of thread and wax. Tell us more about it.

RS: Well, the three parts—fabric pieces, wooden sculptures, and thread-wax installation—are deeply interconnected. They all deal with balance and precariousness yet in different ways. They all embody volume and lightness, movement and shadow . . . they all occupy our living space.