TBE 13 Part 4 :: THE INTRICATE UNRAVELING OF A KNOTTED HISTORY

21 May

THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT

INSTALLMENT 13 :: QUILTING IN MADISON

May 20, 2010

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4. THE INTRICATE UNRAVELING OF A KNOTTED HISTORY
Gee’s Bend, Alabama—a place that no longer exists in the legal register—is nearly 900 miles from Madison. They share little more than the English language. And even that’s a stretch. Today, we know more about more things more than at any other time in history (that we’re aware of). And though this leads to favoring knowledge over wisdom, it does, on occasion, lead to moments of awesome appreciation. Like: when a single piece of art in a northern college town swiftly unravels the knotted history of an isolated village of former slaves.

The quilter in that final room placed her placard near the lower right-hand corner of her piece. ‘Crossing Over,’ it read, a title I’d later learn came from J.R. Moehringer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the small, African American town in central Alabama. The quilt showed a river, that much was clear, its serpentine much like the snake of Highway 12. It dipped into a ‘U’ so deep that as it drew its right side, it nearly made an ‘O,’ almost severing a small pocket of land from the rest of the state.

It is as if Mother Earth was manipulated by History, bending her river under the pressure of its Fear Hounds, afraid to be targeted: it drew its river with a bow of the head. Gee’s Bend is at the bottom of that ‘U,’ across the river from White Camden, with a ferry as its only practical way of accessing things like groceries and doctors. It became a symbol of the Civil Rights movement when, because Benders left their cloister to participate in marches and sit-ins in Montgomery and elsewhere, the people of Camden shut down the ferry, cutting off Gee’s Bend entirely.

The truly odd and awesome part of all this is that quilts are part of what made Gee’s Bend famous. When the town built a new sewing center in 1969, a year after Dr. King was killed, it was paid for by quilting bee revenues. And eventually the townswomen’s quilts would be showcased in New York and the Smithsonian under the title ‘Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt,” and heralded as some of the ‘most miraculous art in America.’

There is silly art, and shitty art, magnificent but inaccessible art, provocatively depressive art, art that tries too hard, and art without any impetus or anchor. But Leah Evans is of a species rare and rarely made known. Her simple quilt connecting two travelers to a time and place in history that without it would have remained utterly unknown, the third-floor gallery acting as one of Eames Demetrios’ Kymaerica installments, transporting us to another plane, splicing our lives into the greater fabric of history.

Art that can do all this—and a thousand things more—in a split second is why art exists and why, no matter what, it will persist as it always has: a single radiant soul bursts through the dense, chugging, industrial churn to show the world what it had forgotten—or what it had never learned in the first place.

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Read: ‘Crossing Over’ by J.R. Moehringer.
Research: Arthur Rothstein, photographer.

One Response to “TBE 13 Part 4 :: THE INTRICATE UNRAVELING OF A KNOTTED HISTORY”

  1. Sean May 22, 2010 at 9:59 pm #

    It has felt so good to watch us both get so much better. At living in the world, and writing it down. I really enjoyed this a whole helluva lot.

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