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Creative Collaborations

Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph, Swarthmore’s fall 2018 exhibition, was a dream exhibition for me as an artist, curator, and Swarthmore alumna.

When the exhibition, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, began a national tour in 2002 at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, people were moved by the quilts’ innovative designs and the way the repurposed fragments of worn fabric embodied resilience in the face of racism and poverty. In January 2017, nearly 30 years after I joined my own quilting group, I proposed to faculty in the Department of Art and Art History that we host an exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts.

I discovered that Mount Holyoke College Art Museum curators had begun organizing Piece Together, the first one-person exhibition by one of the most acclaimed quilters from Gee’s Bend. We partnered, and I began adapting the exhibition for two spaces at Swarthmore: the List Gallery and McCabe Library. A William J. Cooper Foundation grant allowed me to conduct research in Gee’s Bend, Ala., and to edit and publish the exhibition catalog, which includes essays by Swarthmore’s Provost, Professor Sarah Willie-LeBreton, as well as faculty and staff from Mount Holyoke College.

Together with Susan Dreher, visual initiatives and exhibitions librarian, and Alicia Ruley-Nock, a Swarthmore quilter, I curated a companion exhibition, Responses to Gee’s Bend, to hang alongside the Gee’s Bend quilts in McCabe Library. It featured quilts by 17 artists from around the country and two quilts made by students who took Black Art: Quilting as Culture, a course taught by Ms. Ruley-Nock and Professor of History Allison Dorsey.

Many projects grew out of Piece Together, including Gee’s Bend Oral Histories, a book by Yixuan Maisie Luo ’19 and Catherine Williams ’19, who were awarded Petrucci Family Foundation grants to conduct research in Gee’s Bend. Provost Willie-LeBreton and I mentored Maisie and Catherine as they conducted research and collected 15 quilters’ stories about diverse topics, including farming, religion, home remedies, quilting, and civil rights activism.

In September, Mary Lee Bendolph and 15 other Gee’s Benders came to Swarthmore for the reception for Piece Together. Maris Curran’s acclaimed film about Gee’s Bend, While I yet Live, was screened, and Bendolph family members gave powerful testimony—describing the darkness of racism as well as the brightness of the quilts, which embody their religious faith and love of community.

This January, Swarthmore purchased two of Mary Lee Bendolph’s quilts: Fleet and Strip Quilt. I’m thrilled that we will continue to learn from the history and aesthetics of Gee’s Bend.