Quilts of Gee’s Bend Exhibit: 'Not your mother’s quilt'

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“It’s not your mother’s quilt.” That’s how Janet Dolland describes the quilts of Gee’s Bend.

“They’re very bright. They do not follow the traditional quilts that you see. They’re quite improvisational and made from old clothes and old fabric. They just don’t follow the norm. The corners don’t meet. Sometimes there’s no pattern at all.”

Dolland, an advocate of the quilts and the collective of women who make them, will be bringing seven from her collection to Wilton Manors as part of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend: The Fabric of Their Lives.”

They will be displayed as part of the free exhibit will – held Feb. 3 to March 10 at Art Gallery 21, 600 NE 21 Ct., Wilton Manors. Art Gallery 21 is open to the public Thursdays to Saturdays from 12 to 8 p.m.

Dolland first learned about the women of the collective, which was formed in the early 20th Century, about 15 years ago when Martha Stewart featured them on her TV show. The quilts have also been recognized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the National Museum in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Postal Service.

After taking a trip from her Michigan home down to Gee’s Bend, a small African American community in Alabama, Dolland began her love affair with the quilts. Today, she owns 12. She purchased her first one for $350. “Some of them can be several thousands of dollars – eight, nine, $10,000, depending on the quilter. The range has changed over the years. I’ve got a few other hobbies, but this probably is the biggest one that I really have become involved in. And, of course, the ladies. You could never have asked for a more personal, hospitable, welcoming group.”

One of the ladies, China Pettway, 66, has been quilting since she was 11 years old. Her family didn’t have much, so anything and everything was used to make quilts, including old clothing. “We were poor. Whatever we had, we made use of that. My mother always taught us you use what god gives you. It’s a memory of the way I grew up in hard times . . . It’s a joy to sit down and sew.”

Pettway draws inspiration from her own life, but also from important African American figures from the past, such as Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman. “My mother put quilts up on the wall, the windows, to keep the wind out. She put 12 or 13 on the bed [over my siblings and I]. They used to be so heavy we could hardly move. But they kept us warm.”

In addition to buying quilts from the women, Dolland also donates fabric to them. She estimated that she’s donated over 2,000 pounds of fabric over the years. “One time, I took 300 pounds in my van. Another time, 400 pounds.”

Dolland will also be giving two free lectures on the quilts: Saturday, Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. at Art Gallery 21, and Wednesday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. at Old Dillard High School, 1001 NW 4 St., Fort Lauderdale.

For more information about the exhibit, visit QuiltsOfGeesBend.com or artgallery21.org.


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