American Quilting Collectives: Gee’s Bend and the Mountain Artisans

Creative network

The ladies with their quilts

Isolated, rural communities in the American south have given rise to some uniquely American art, with the exuberant colors and patterns reflecting modern abstraction. The collective helped these rural artists’ groups bring their quilts to a modern marketplace. Two of the most famous quilting collectives are the Mountain Artisans of West Virginia and the Gee’s Bend Collective, in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Both collectives are famous for taking the country quilt and elevating it to a uniquely American art form.

The Mountain Artisans hoped to find work at a living wage for the women of the isolated communities of West Virginia. The economy of coal mining was leaving the rural communities decimated, and the collective formed with the idea of marketing quilted items from bed coverings to skirts to placemats, with unique designs that were worked by hand by members of the collective.

After a long rough start, the group found support for their work from a member of the Rockefeller family, who appreciated the way the vibrant designs of the sixties and seventies could be interpreted in quilted form, and the way traditional quilt patterns could be melded with modern design. The long quilted skirts, with traditional block patterns such as broken dishes, and applique work with long sweeps of geometric forms and flowers, reflected the aesthetic of the day beautifully. The Rockefeller Quilt, a masterwork of unique regional design and cooperative making, is the hallmark of the group’s work.

In Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a small, isolated community developed a unique visual language using color and form that is considered one of the most significant contributions to African-American visual arts in American art history. These quilts are noted for their expressive joy and natural use of geometric abstraction — abstraction without the hard edges. Reflecting the natural world, but each unique and hand-made, these quilts are made by individual artists. The collective works to help the artists with the work of marketing, sales, and business support.

These two models of collective work making unique American quilts are an excellent model for the benefits of artists working together, collaboration over competition.