West End gallery highlights significant African-American artists

A resplendent exhibition of 21 prints and three quilts featuring the bold patterns and geometric simplicity that bring to mind artists such as Albers and Stella will open at the Carl Solway Gallery on Friday, July 20th from 4 pm to 8 pm.

The exhibit features the work of women quilt makers from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a small African-American community at the bend of the Alabama River in Wilcox County, once considered to be the poorest one in the country. Years ago slaves toiled in the cotton fields of the Pettway Plantation here. These quilters are descendants of those slaves.

Gee’s Benders have been creating quilts for generations, learning their craft at the knees of their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. “We’d get together and make the quilts just like we’re praying together,” remarks quilt maker Mary Lee Bendolph, who is featured in the show.

Longtime gallery owner Carl Solway was aware that four Gee’s Bend women had commissioned the Paulson Fontaine Press in Berkeley to produce high quality prints of their quilts. Solway contacted the California press and said he’d love to host an exhibition of these prints locally.

The 21 etchings comprising the “Exhibition of Quilts and Prints by the Women from Gee’s Bend” are the work of four women: Mary Lee Bendolph, Louisiana Bendolph, Lorettta Bennett, and Loretta Pettway. The etchings vary in size and sell from $3,000 to $6,000 each.

Solway also wanted to display some Gee’s Bender quilts in the exhibit and arranged with Mary Lee Bendolph’s son, Reuben, to incorporate three of her works in the show. Bendolph, who had marched with Martin Luther King in the ‘60s, has a quilt making style blending improvisation with a vernacular construction technique emphasizing rectangles and squares.

The Gee Bend women make their quilts with cast off and worn fragments of cloth which they reshape into designs. In the Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, actress Jane Fonda expresses awe for the quilters’ work. “They take discordant pieces and give them new and transcendent life,” she enthuses. The documentary will be on view in the gallery’s video room at the opening and throughout the course of the exhibition.

Civil rights worker Father Francis Xavier Walter discovered the Gee Bend quilts in 1965 and bought quilts to be auctioned in New York, with proceeds going to the Gee’s Bend community. The following year the quilters organized the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative earning the quilters money and creating the first ever black-owned business in that county.

In the 70s and 80s, art historian Bill Arnett encouraged the Gee’s Benders quilters to appreciate themselves as talented artists. The quilts suddenly were bringing in $2,000 apiece. Arnett organized exhibitions for the quilters, with shows at over 13 major U.S. museums. In mid-September of 2018 a show of Mary Lee Bendolph’s quilts, Piece Together, will hang at Swarthmore College’s List Gallery.

Solway, now in his 56th year of gallery ownership, greatly appreciates the philosophy behind the Gee’s Bend quilters work model that emphasizes community and common enterprise, values which he feels have been lost in the momentum to raise independent, self-sufficient children. Additionally, with the Solway Gallery’s location in Cincinnati’s West End, historically an African-American community, Solway feels it fitting that he highlights the work of significant African-American artists.

The Carl Solway Gallery is located at 424 Findlay St. between Central Avenue and John Street. Free off-street parking is available, and admission is free.

The exhibition of quilts and prints by the women from Gee’s Bend continues through Friday, September 21st. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm, and Saturday, 12 pm to 5 pm.

Read more articles by Connie Springer.

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