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Mothers of invention

'Quilts of Gee's Bend' knits beauty and art with threads of history

Brassy, visionary, and cozy. The three don't go together often, but ''The Quilts of Gee's Bend," the vibrant and defiant traveling exhibition of textiles at the Museum of Fine Arts, has it all. There's the dazzle of sophisticated, syncopated design, and the fortitude of artists creating work in extreme poverty in order to keep their families warm.

Isolated in a sharp loop in the Alabama River northwest of Selma, tiny Gee's Bend has been home to sharecroppers and tenant farmers, the descendants of slaves. In between caring for several children, helping out on the land, and keeping their families fed and healthy, the women of Gee's Bend would make quilts. Girls would apprentice themselves to mothers and grandmothers.

The quilts on display were made between 1930 and 2000. Collector William Arnett happened on them in 1998, when he saw a photo of a Gee's Bend quilt in a book about African-American quilting. This isn't the first time Gee's Bend has garnered national attention; identified as one of the most impoverished communities in America during the Depression, it got both federal funds and media attention.

In the 1960s, Gee's Benders were in the news again, when, after some of them protested for voting rights with Martin Luther King Jr., ferry service to the community was cut off. In 1975, Irene Williams made a quilt striped with red, white, and blue banners reading ''Vote" to mark the struggle.

These quilts have a jaw-dropping correspondence to modern art, even though the artists knew nothing of Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman, or Robert Rauschenberg. Some pieces here look like sister-works to paintings and collages made by those artists. The quilts are defined by bold geometric forms; patterns that range from notably minimalist to a Paul Klee-like shimmer; and a nuanced, risk-taking color sense. A 1975 quilt made from scraps of corduroy by China Pettway looks like a Mondrian in shades of brown.

Well-known African-American artists of the midcentury, such as Jacob Lawrence and John Biggers, made narrative art about the black experience. They were shunted aside by an art world obsessed with abstraction. It's a strange irony that the work of the Gee's Benders, black women so poor they lined their walls with newspaper for decoration, might well have caught the eye of uber critic Clement Greenberg.

Jane Livingston, in her catalog essay for the show, which originated at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, points to certain design elements, particularly the lively use of color, as perhaps making their way from Africa through several generations. Then there are traditional patterns, such as the Log Cabin and the Pinwheel, that some of these artists use as a launching pad. These, and not modern art, are the seeds of their work.

In quilt making as in music, African-Americans improvise, riff, break out of patterns, and return to them. They throw symmetry and order to the wind in favor of experimentation.

Look at Sally Bennett Jones's triangle quilt, made in 1966: Blue and white triangles march across the front, then unexpectedly reverse direction; the top left square is not the blue/white combination, but a bold orange floral motif, and other fabrics infringe, teasing, from the left: plaid, floral, plain brown.

This cocky playfulness shows up even in the earliest quilts in the show, crafted from the worn-out work clothes of the women's husbands. Along the stretches of indigo denim stitched together, the darker spots where pockets have been torn off and hems undone set up a winking, jazzy rhythm. Rachel Carey George's two-sided work-clothes quilt, made around 1935, utilizes old jeans, gray cotton shirts, and striped mattress ticking, all sewn together in broad, irregular bars, with a patchwork stretching along the top like open arms. It's a spectacle of clean, sophisticated modernism, made from old scraps.

Where more traditional quilts are perfectly symmetrical and delicately sewn, the Gee's Bend quilters reveled in skewing angles and didn't worry over pretty stitchery. That's partly because the artists were working with what they had: strips of cloth, often hand-torn.

Annie Mae Young, celebrated in the show as a true master, didn't bother with scissors. One of her pieces dated to 1965 starts with a border of concentric squares in white and blue; on the left, the blue veers past the white and off the side. The interior square crisscrosses wildly with solid and patterned strips; the closer you get to the center, the more intricate and fascinating the work becomes.

The Gee's Bend quilts are fresh and resolutely themselves, not made for an audience, not caught up in art-world insularity, but urged on by a sisterly competitiveness to push the designs a step further. In the face of poverty, backbreaking work, and oppression, quilting fed these artists spirits and kept them going.

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