I 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.
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.
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.
I 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’.