Gee’s Bend quilter Louisiana Bendolph

Louisiana_Bendolph,_History_0I was last blogging about  Gee’s Bend quilts and my introduction to the work of the remarkable women who make them. I met two quilters, Louisiana Bendolph and her mother, Rabbit, at Lonnie Holley’s workshop last fall. I sat beside Louisiana, a modest and reserved woman, and looked through a beautiful book about the quilts, as well as the autobiography she contributed to the book.

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When I closed the book, Louisiana asked me what I thought about it. I was at a loss for words. You see, her biography reads like something I would have expected from an African-American woman over a hundred years ago, not someone who was born in 1960. As I’ve said before, my knowledge of American social history comes from books; I have not lived there or experienced the truth of racial oppression. It looks quite different in real life.

 

But Louisiana was patient and waited for me to speak. I said how sad I felt to learn about her childhood. From age 6, Louisiana worked with her family in a cotton field, from sunup to sundown, every day except Sunday, which was saved for church. She felt wistful as the school bus passed her by. She went to school only on rainy days (not many) and from the end of November to March when it was time to start planting crops again. She didn’t have much of a childhood, and says her life was hard, but they had to work in order to survive.

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Louisiana watched the women in her family make quilts, but didn’t make her own until she was 12, and only then because it was something to do. Her life was busy with children, a husband, and a low-paying job. In 2002, she went to Houston to see the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit and admits that she didn’t know what to expect other than seeing some old quilts. She was shocked to see her name in a book beside a photo of one of her quilts. She was profoundly moved when she saw her great-grandmother’s quilt on display, realizing that she had created something important and continued to live through her artwork.

Louisiana had always thought her quilt-making days were over. She had made enough quilts to keep her family warm. But on her way home from the exhibit, Louisiana started having visions of quilts. She says the visions have never disappeared and she keeps making more and more and more quilts. Sometimes she holds the design in her mind and sometimes she draws it on paper. It’s mainly about colour for Louisiana and her quilts are a testament to her exquisite sense of design and colour.

LB imageI met Louisiana and her mother a few days later at a  music event featuring Lonnie Holley. I had a visit with her before the concert began and she told me that she was going to be on stage with Matt Arnett (their manager) and participate in the introductory lecture. She hadn’t planned what she would say; she was a storyteller and the story would unfold as she said the words. Unfortunately, Arnett dominated the session, telling stories about himself and his father who began collecting outsider art many years ago. Listening to him was painful. His words were fuel for his own ego, not for the artists and musicians who were the stars of the event. Time ran out. Louisiana didn’t have an opportunity to speak.

Read paragraph 2 again. Just sayin’.

 

 

 

The Gee’s Bend Quilters

images (3)I have no excuse for my blog silence since I finished my degree.  Laziness, perhaps. Recharging, probably. Anyway, I have been prodded along by some of my readers, so here we go.

I left off writing about artist Lonnie Holley and his visit to Vancouver. He came with the Gee’s Bend Quilters, and that was an eye-opening (and eye-popping) experience for me. I had heard of these quilters, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Unfortunately, I missed the lecture they offered about their work, but I did get to meet them at the workshop with Lonnie Holley.

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Gee’s Bend is a very small, riverside community in Alabama.  As you might have guessed, the community has a long, and inexcusable history of plantations and slavery. Perhaps the only good news to come out of that area is that the quilting collective has carried on their quilting traditions, with skills passed down through the generations. Notice was taken of the work in the 1960s; now their quilting masterpieces hang in museums and are recognized as one of the most important African-American visual and cultural contributions to art history in the United States. Documentation suggests that their unique abstract style evolved because of their geographical isolation and unusual degree of cultural continuity.

This blog serves only to introduce you to the quilters’ stunning work. Enjoy.

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The degree

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I’m happy to announce that I have completed my Master’s degree. The thesis is called Outsider Art:  Forty Years Out, referencing the chaos that ensued with outsider art terminology after Roger Cardinal published his book Outsider Art in 1972.

Next step? A book about outsider art in Canada, of course!

Lonnie Holley, the musician

2015-10-23 14.11.53When Lonnie Holley came to Vancouver for an art workshop (see previous blog), it was pretty much what I expected. I was familiar with his work from books and websites and enjoyed meeting him while I was creating my (small and peculiar) mobile from found objects.

HOWEVER, Lonnie is also a musician. And from seeing him perform, I think music forms as much of his DNA as art. Lonnie and his band performed when he was here in Vancouver. While I might be able to explain counterpoint in a piece of classical music, I simply don’t have the expertise or vocabulary to describe Lonnie’s improvisational music to you. It was very much like his visual art: an assemblage of ideas and forms. And, like art, Holley is a self-taught musician.

Before going on stage, I wa26holley1-master675tched Holley fidget like a Kindergarten child – he was almost vibrating with anticipation and excitement. The introductory lecture and endless set-up were clearly a torture to him. He was visibly relieved when he was finally called up on stage. With no introductory words, he began to play.

Holley performed with two percussionists – one played a keyboard; the other played every percussion instrument in a musician’s repertoire. If you appreciate the complexity of jazz, you would understand the woven tapestry of Holley’s pieces. I learned that Holley doesn’t perform the same piece twice (why bother because it’s already been done?) and his performance was pure improvisation, for both him and his accompanists. Like all professional musicians  they were completely connected to Holley during the performance and I doubt that anything could have distracted them from the urgency of the moment. Holley played on a keyboard and sang; they responded with riffs and diversions that could only make sense to one completely plugged into the moment of music. It made traditional jazz look like a contrived and staged undertaking.

I am at a loss for words to tell you about Holley’s performance. It was like sung/spoken poetry. It was about slavery, the universe, his personal dreams. It was entirely foreign to me, but I settled into it. Watch this video, and you can decide for yourself:

I don’t know anyone else like Lonnie Holley, and I doubt I will ever meet another like him.

Lonnie Holley comes to Vancouver

IMG_0251Much to my surprise and delight, outsider art superstar Lonnie Holley was in Vancouver last week. He came with the Gees Bend quilters (more about that later) to conduct an art workshop and perform with his band. (Who knew he was also a musician?) I became aware of Lonnie’s work some years ago through my personal journey in outsider art. I mainly knew about his sculptures, but happened to see a painting of his last year in New Orleans. (Dynamite. Absolutely gorgeous.) This year I got to meet him. And here is  holding my sculptural creation.

Lonnie’s biography can be found easily on the Internet, but he is happy to share the details of his life with people he meets. Lonnie, AKA The Sand Man, was the 7th of 27 children (!), born in Alabama in 1950. He told us that his art career sprung from a horrific event, when his sister’s two children died in a house fire. Not having enough money to buy headstones, Lonnie carved them himself from discarded material near the foundry. He says that after that he wasn’t able to stop creating and having seen him in action, I caught a glimpse of what he meant.

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Lonnie showed his work to the Birmingham Museum of Art and they were immediately received by the director. Things snowballed from there – people came to see his yard full of sculptures and the outsider art world took notice. Thank heavens for those who recognized his artwork as more than bits of trash.

IMG_0252Like many outsider artists, Lonnie is prolific. We were asked to bring a collection of “personal things” to the workshop and without much introduction, Lonnie asked us to assemble something from the piles of material on the table. One person brought objects from her family, including old tools from her grandfather. Lonnie became absorbed in her personal story and what the objects had to tell. He spent a lot of time helping her hammer things together until a final sculpture took shape. It was obviously a collection of ‘stuff’ that struck a chord with him. I was intrigued to watch the process of a sculpture coming together and got little done on my own project. In fact, he told us that it is the process and how it feels, not the end product that matters. This is something I have heard over and over (and over) from outsider artists that I have come to know.

It is an important reminder to stop and smell the roses on your life’s journey.

I would never approach a superstar in the contemporary art world. I am intimidated in those settings and find myself shrinking into a corner, tongue-tied. (Remind me sometime to tell you about the time I thought* (*fantasized) that I saw Ai Wei Wei in an art museum in New York.) But it’s different with outsider artists. They are always approachable, interesting, and interested. So it was with Lonnie. He is talker, and likes to talk about what he is doing as he works on his art piece, tell stories about himself, and generally shoot the breeze.

Lonnie enjoys engaging with others and hearing what they have to say. He is kind, personable, and funny. Meeting him was another reminder that in the end, we are all just *people* with our own troubles, epiphanies, sorrows, triumphs, and memories. My personal story is different from yours, but we have all walked the same path at some point in our lives.