About Rebecca Crowell

Copyright© 2006 Rebecca Crowell
(This essay was written in the early stages of developing my multiple panel paintings.)

The most influential work I saw in the course of developing my current work was The Quilts of Gees Bend exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum in Novemeber of 2003. In the years since then, I've had time to digest and see more clearly what impressed me. I'm aware of the times I tend to reflect upon it‐‐what causes me to look back to it for inspiration.

This is mostly when I feel I'm doing something too predictable, or my color sense is too conventional or somehow limited. That I am missing a sense of adventure or surprise. Or perhaps too bogged down in elaborate technique, and losing touch with my feelings or what I can offer to someone's spirit.

The quilts were bold, simple yet sophisticated, daring, held amazing surprises, and prompted many questions. Here, the quilter has set up a nice, traditional pattern of triangles...only to suddenly break the whole thing up with triangles turning upside down and backwards. Here is one in which the design seems at first glance to be based on solid geometric forms, yet there is not a straight line in the whole composition. How can a strip of bright red "work" when it appears suddenly off center in a field of pale yellow strips? How can these garish, weird colors (some were made from cloth from leisure suits!) come together in such a congenial manner? How can a person create a design of such complexity by simply moving through it intuitively, using whatever was at hand? And is it simply a matter of what materials were available or was it some other vision that caused her border to have such interesting stops and starts? How could this quilter, who has never seen "modern art" create a design so reminiscent of 60s pop art?

Besides the visual excitement, there was deeper meaning to the quilts. I was deeply touched by a gallery off work clothing quilts, which I'd passed through at first, impatient as I was to see the brighter ones beyond. When I returned to these and studied them at length, I found them most moving in their content and concept, in their use of what is worn out and threadbare to create a new object. One quilt was a memorial to a dead husband, made from his clothing‐‐a way that the quilter dealt with her grief. There was an incredible human touch in all the quilts but most especially in these, which did not offer bright colors or patterns, only quiet and subtle combinations of faded denim and corduroy in simple blocks and strips. The room hung with these work clothes quilts was to me, somber and meditative, akin in spirit to the gallery of Agnes Martin paintings in The Harwood Museum in Taos.

But these quilts were so unselfconscious, so non‐art world, so honest‐in a way that we "professionals" can hardly hope to achieve, because we are programmed to be self‐conscious and to know that we have an audience. Maybe I'm romanticizing this, but all the quilts seemed personal and honest in a very refreshing way. They were never done to be seen by outsiders, only by family and friends. In some cases the women who made them hardly seemed aware that they were anything creative‐that they were purely practical. Others talked on tape about their choices of fabric or delight in the way something turned out. There was a close community of women making the quilts across several generations, and they enjoyed each others creative ideas.

So what have these quilts meant to my own work? In the quirky paths that the creative process takes, they were major landmarks along the way to the bold visual combinations and contrasts seen in my multiple panel paintings. The painted panels now function for me in a way similar to quilt pieces; they can be moved around in endless combinations, like bits of fabric on a table. I sometimes find myself, even 3 years later, thinking of the quilts as I stare at various panels and consider how to arrange them. Could the bright orange one go next to the bright blue one? Why not? I'm much more likely to try it now, to try lots of things, inspired by the quilts and the women who made them. The variety of color, texture and pattern in the Gees bend quilts is a visual feast. But even in the most subtle ones, the work clothing quilts, this sense remained. I think they have given me more courage with my own more subtle or minimalist panels.

In the more colorful quilts, I love the sense of playfulness, spontaneity and shear creative delight joy that is expressed. The quilts were so unlike the many traditional early American quilts I've seen, with a strict pattern and repeated design. The women in Gees Bend have their own tradition called "my way" a celebration of quirky individuality. They use a few traditional patterns that are very open ended as a base‐housetop, medallion or striped configurations‐but these are often barely recognizable in their incredible variations. I find this attitude inspiring and energizing. I want to keep expanding the kinds of marks I can make, the color combinations I can find, and the ways of dividing space. Like the quilters, I do tend to like certain structures or underlying patterns‐‐square format, geometric divisions, diagonal orientation, but the overlay of marks and colors is wide open to variety.

I also love in the quilts the confidence of the work, the bold placements, the wild contrasts. Spontaneity balanced with structure. Somehow all the quilts "worked" as compositions, no matter how outrageous the placement of the various colors and patterns. This seems to prove a certain inherent logic and order in true spontaneity.

The clothing that the women used in their quilts were slices of their lives, things they had worn or collected, or were given by friends. Their bits of cloth were inherently abstract units that they pieced together. It occurs to me that I too collect. For me these are visual impressions, bits of sky or foliage, and I abstract and use them in a similar way to the quiltmakers. I look for what fits together, and what can be unexpectedly juxtaposed, either visually or conceptually.

The women of Gees Bend made these quilts, put them on the bed, and moved on. It was a huge surprise to them when the art world discovered their work. They seem to feel nothing too precious about it, and are amazed that the outside world finds anything remarkable about it. Their creative joy comes from making the object, not in any outcome of recognition. It is a focus on process that frees the artist to move ahead.

– Rebecca Crowell

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