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Season of the stitch

The Quilts of Gee's Bend at the High

It is indeed a serendipitous art moment. Just as the indie craft scene goes nuclear, with eager young scenesters knitting and cross-stitching their hearts out, in a delicious coincidence, the hardly down-home High Museum hosts some sublime stitching.

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The Quilts of Gee's Bend, which toured New York's Whitney in 2002 to rave reviews, has finally made it to Atlanta. These orchestrations of Sears Roebuck corduroy and polyester double-knit become quilts that somehow roll the human love of comfort, sentimentality and artfulness into exquisitely complicated objects.

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The descendants of slaves from an isolated community in Alabama, the Gee's Bend quilters earned rightful celebration for their off-the-charts patterning and improvisational rhythms in the textile answer to free jazz.

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The often austere and angular quilt patterns on view, hailing from the '20s into the 21st century, suggest minimalist grids, op art, and the canted, shape-shifting rooms of a carnival fun house, but touched with the imprints of people and time with bleach and rust stains and the soft, mellow patina of worn corduroy. The pieces imbue minimalism with the human touch.

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Symmetry and perfection were a secondary goal to the local creed of "my way," a desire for freedom and self-expression rooted in the history of African-American resistance to the narrow — if not outright cruel — place allowed them in Southern history. When the outside-the-box patterns don't move you, the exquisite color combinations do, like the shock of aqua blue and soft gray in Loretta Pettway's 1963 "Housetop."

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The anecdotes of Gee's Bend life prove as engrossing as the quilts, and express powerful reservoirs of feeling worked out in humble cloth, like the salty response of Mary Lee Randolph, whose relation in Connecticut sends her kin in Gee's Bend a hand-me-down shipment of polyester leisure suits.

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"We're not that out of style down here," Randolph scoffs in typically flinty Southern style. But she doesn't toss the ugly suits, either. She does what all the quilters do. She takes the material of life's difficulty and unloveliness and makes it into art.



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