Famed quilters visit Fiber College

Gee’s Bend comes to the Midcoast

By Dagney C. Ernest | Aug 27, 2014
Photo by: Steve Tanguay China Pettway poses in Gee’s Bend by one of her quilts, held up by Astrig Tanguay, left, and Lucy Mingo.

Searsport — In Maine, when the temperatures drop, we pull out the down comforters and throw some wood in the stove or oil in the tank. In Gee’s Bend, Ala., where the houses are uninsulated and don't have heating, it does not get as cold, but there are chilly nights and the occasional winter snowfall. So they pile quilts on the beds, one on top of another … sometimes a dozen or more. Fortunately, for the residents and for lovers of folk art around the world, they have plenty of quilts.

Almost three dozen quilts from Gee’s Bend are on view at several spots this summer; the first week of September, they will all end up in Searsport, as will four of their creators, visiting the state for the first time to be a highlight of the annual Fiber College of Maine at Searsport Shores Ocean Campground.

A decade ago, Gee’s Bend, aka Boykin, Ala., was an art world hot topic. The New York Times hailed its quilts as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” The quilts and the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend garnered enough national media attention that in 2006, the United States Post Office issued Gee’s Bend quilt commemorative stamps. The big to-do has died down, but the stitching continues.

The quiltmaking in the tightly knit, Alabama River-bend community evolved in a distinctive, abstract manner that deviates from the more expected Afro-American narrative approach. Quilts are made from repurposed materials, and traditional patterns and techniques take unexpected paths.

“The isolation of it is why the quilts developed the way they have,” said Alice Seeger, a longtime Fiber College participant who is helping director Astrig Tanguay produce the event this year.

Tanguay and her husband Steve, who own the oceanfront campground that hosts Fiber College each September, experienced that isolation first-hand in February. A friend of Tanguay’s was interested in buying a Gee’s Bend Quilt and was trying to figure out how to contact the quilters. Tanguay thought the work might be a fit for Fiber College and made the call.

“She said if she’d done the research, she would’ve been too intimidated to phone,” said Seeger.

When Tanguay asked for some JPEGs to be sent, she was told “the ladies” had no computers. It became clear that if she wanted to make a Fiber College pitch to the quilters of Gee’s Bend, she was going to have to do it in person. So she and her husband traveled to Alabama, took the recently restored ferry (infamously discontinued during the Civil Rights era) and were escorted into the remote community, a necessity given how uncommon strangers appear in Gee’s Bend. They stayed at the home of Lucy Mingo, one of the four quilters who will arrive around Labor Day.

“Some of the ladies are well into their 80s; China and Stella Mae [Pettway] are the next generation, in their 50s/60s,” said Seeger. The fourth quilter coming is Revil Mosley.

The Tanguays spent several days in the community, photographing and videotaping. Another thread that connects the quilters is their faith, and it is a testament to the comfort they felt with the couple that they invited them to attend church. Singing old gospel songs as they sew is part of the Gee’s Bend medium and it is reflected in the Fiber College video (see link below). It also will be part of the public evening planned for Wednesday, Sept. 3.

When the Tanguays got back to Maine, they met with renowned fiber artist Katharine Cobey of Cushing, who suggested bringing Maine Fiberarts into the picture. “And Penobscot Marine Museum has always partnered with Fiber College,” said Seeger.

So, while “the ladies” from Alabama are not arriving until the end of August, more than 30 of their quilts have been on view since early summer. “Gee’s Bend Quilts in Topsham: ‘Do It Your Way’” runs through Saturday, Aug. 30, at the Maine Fiberarts gallery in Topsham; and “Do It Your Way: Gee’s Bend Quilts & Quilters in Maine” is at Penobscot Marine Museum through Sept. 7. It is the first time the Gee’s Bend quilts have been north of Boston.

“When the Fiberarts show ends, those quilts will come to Penobscot Marine, spread around the buildings and shown in the traditional manner, but in a New England context,” said Seeger.

The tradition she refers to is piling the quilts one on top of each other on beds. Penobscot Marine’s Curator Cipperly Good “did a fantastic job documenting the quilts” when they initially arrived in a big, stamp-laden box, said Seeger. At the museum, docents wearing white gloves peel back the quilt layers for visitors.

Things will be a bit more hands-on at Fiber College of Maine, which runs Wednesday through Sunday, Sept. 3 through 7. The quilters, who are staying as a group in a Searsport home, will teach a two-day intensive Wednesday and Thursday; and then shorter classes on Saturday and Sunday, offering participants a chance to quilt alongside these national treasures … and anyone can have the chance of taking home a Gee’s Bend quilt, thanks to a raffle that will be drawn during Fiber College’s final event, a dessert farewell Sunday afternoon. The quilts also can be taken home via “Do It Your Way,” a booklet that accompanies the Penobscot Marine Museum show, available for purchase at the downtown museum and during the Sept. 3 dinner and discussion event.

The presence of the Gee’s Bend quilters at Fiber College is a first in several ways. Fiber College of Maine, the largest fiber arts education gathering on the East Coast, has in the past had a designated artist in residence and a big Saturday night supper, but its growth has made adjustments a necessity. Trying to accommodate everyone in one location for a dinner and keynote speech, for example, has given way to a Saturday bonfire and chowder dinner on the beach.

“There’s a core group of people who come every year. It’s a challenge to keep it warm and open and inclusive,” said Seeger of the event, which caters to both highly trained artists and newcomers.

The very definition of “fiber” covers more ground that many outside the medium’s community would suspect. The medieval art of chainmail, for example, is so popular at the moment that the 2014 schedule has an offering every day.

“And woodworking has always been part of Fiber College,” said Seeger.

While hundreds will gather at the campground to learn and practice fiber art, wander through acres of organic gardens and stroll along the beach, “the ladies” will be getting a taste of this place so far from Boykin, Ala. Their host will be driving them around, said Seeger, “and we’re organizing some field trips for them, visiting Abby [Gilchrist] at Fiddlehead [Artisan Supply] fabrics and maybe a boat trip.”

For the complete Fiber College of Maine schedule and registration information, visit fibercollege.org. The Sept. 3 evening will begin 5 p.m. at the First Congregational Church, on the Penobscot Marine Museum campus. A New England boiled dinner will be followed by a discussion forum, moderated by Maine Center for Contemporary Art Director Suzette McAvoy, and gospel singing with “the ladies.” Price to attend dinner and forum is $30, $15 for just the forum (7 p.m.). Proceeds will benefit Interfaith Fuel Fund and the Searsport Congregational/ Methodist Food Cupboard.

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Staff Profile

Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional, for 30 years and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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