If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Sandie Cohen has just spent two months paying Gee’s Bend quilter Qunnie Pettway one big compliment.
An avid quilter, Cohen recently finished a quilt top replica of one of Pettway’s Gee’s Bend designs.
An East County quilter, Cohen, 63, has been fascinated with the Gee’s Bend quilters since she toured an exhibit of the famous African-American quilt collective five years ago at the Museum of Fine Arts, in St. Petersburg.
Regarded as one of the country’s most renowned quilting groups, the Gee’s Bend quilters hail from an all-black community south of Selma, Ala., where, after the Civil War, freed slaves lived as tenant farmers in an isolated hamlet called Gee’s Bend.
The quilts, constructed from crooked scraps of fabric cut from old clothes and found textiles, have garnered much attention from American quilters and art critics alike. Since the first Gee’s Bend quilt exhibit opened eight years ago at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Houston, the once-secluded sect of African-American artisans has achieved superstar status rarely enjoyed by quilters.
“We quilters like everything to be equal and proportionate,” Cohen says. “But the life wasn’t equal or proportionate for these women. Their quilts reflect that.”
The Gee’s Bend quilters have been featured in Newsweek magazine, The New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine and on NPR, “CBS News Sunday Morning” and “The Martha Stewart Show,” to name a few. The collective’s penchant for geometrically imperfect patterns and expressive colors has been likened to the styles of Henri Matisse and Paul Klee.
For years Cohen has been enamored with Gee’s Bend’s markedly unpredictable designs and bold, solitary hues.
She was especially drawn to Pettway’s “Lazy Gal Variation” because she says the colors matched one of her favorite pieces of art — a painting by Asheville, N.C., artist Jonas Gerard, whose work is framed above the love seat in her living room.
Despite what you might think, Cohen’s house is not filled with quilts. A retired nurse, she donates most of her blankets to chemotherapy patients at Sarasota Memorial Hospital or gives them away to friends and family.
The Gee’s Bend quilt, however, is a gift to herself.
“This one will be heavily quilted,” she says, holding the half-finished blanket to her chest. “This one stays here.”
Cohen, a New York City native, started quilting 10 years ago on the recommendation of an artist friend, whom she had asked for painting lessons.
“I have virtually no drawing or painting skills,” Cohen laughs. “But I’ve always been a very good sewer. My grandfather was a tailor. I made my children’s clothes when they were young. It seemed like quilting might come natural to me.”
She’s now crafted more than 50 quilts.
When she heard The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit would be opening at Art Center Sarasota, she immediately visited the gallery.
“I was crazed,” she says, rifling through the collection of Gee’s Bend paraphernalia spread out across her kitchen table (address book, stamps, stationary, a 2006 issue of LIFE magazine, a heap of library books). “I didn’t get a chance to fondle the quilts, but I’m going back again next week, so I’ll have my chance.”
if you go
“The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” is up now through Oct. 23, at Art Center Sarasota. For more information, call 365-2032 or visit www.artsarasota.org. To learn more about Gee’s Bend, visit www.quiltsofgeesbend.com.