Black History Month Art Lesson
The first time I saw the Quilts of Gee's Bend, Alabama was in in the Summer of 2006 I had just started a job at the De Young Museum in San Francisco gift shops. The Quilts of Gee's Bend had been on display for several months at that point and I had sold several postcard sets featuring the unique improvisational patterns but I had not yet seen them in person. So the next time I was posted in the Textiles Gallery I planed to take my 15 min break to visit the exhibition of the quilts.
Few artworks have effected me emotionally and spiritually the way seeing those quilts for the first time did that day. I was in a stage in my life when I was feeling particularly distant from my lifelong passion for art. I was doubting my decision to go to graduate school in San Francisco. As a country girl in a big city, the vocabulary and pretense around discussions of art was off-putting to me.
Seeing the hand stitched surfaces, the pieces of denim and khaki that I knew came from the work paints and church paints of sons and husbands all bound into astoundingly complex abstract compositions touched my heart that day; the quilts made me remember why I loved art.
Over the years I have shared the Quilts of Gee's Bend with my students as examples of composition design or color scheme but I really wanted to create a lesson that focused on the history and tradition of quilt-making in the region and use the quilts to teach my students The Principles of Design.
History of Gee's Bend Alabama
Gee’s Bend known officially as Boykin is a community in Alabama that is situated in the bend of the Alabama River. Because of this there is only one major highway into the town. The land was part of the Native American Creek Federation before European colonizers arrived.
In 1816 a land owner from North Carolina named Joseph Gee bought the land and started a cotton plantation bringing along 18 enslaved African Americans. When Gee died he left the land to his nephews and they sold it to Mark H. Pettway in 1845 who held the land during the Civil War and Emancipation. Several of the quilt artists that still reside in Gee's Bend have the last name Pettway because their ancestors were enslaved during this period of the town's history.
After the emancipation, most of the formerly enslaved African Americans stayed on the land and worked as sharecroppers. In the 1930s the community faced economic hardships and the owners of the land the de Graaff family sold the land to the US Government. The land was divided up and “Roosevelt” homes were erected for each family in the area, giving African American inhabitants control of the land. During this time the Red Cross and FSA photographers including Dorothea Lange visited the area to distribute rations and bring awareness to the economic struggles of the families of Gee’s Bend. In 1949 a post office was established in the town and it’s name was officially changed to Boykin although the community is still called Gee’s Bend locally. Source
The Quilts of Gee's Bend
The tradition of quilting in the Gee’s Bend region goes back to the time of slavery when enslaved black women pieced together pieces of fabric to create warm blankets for their families. The techniques, patterns and methods were passed down for generations as a necessity to keep families warm especially during times of economic hardship when fuel was scarce. Some Gee’s Bend quilters have a connection to the Women’s Alberta Freedom Quilting Bee in neighboring Alberta, AL which was started during the Civil Rights era as a way to bring economic development to the area around quilting. Gee’s Bend quilts are unique in style and are created using a quilt frame and hand sewn by a group of quilters.
The quilts of Gee’s Bend and Alberta were known locally since the 1960s but the quilts were brought to national attention in the 1990s when an Atlanta art dealer William Arnett purchased several Gee’s Bend quilts for an exhibition. The unique complex patterns and improvisational color schemes drew the attention of curators and the quilts traveled the US for several high profile exhibitions including an exhibition in the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Some have criticized Arnett for exploiting folk and outsider artists while others have praised him for bringing these artworks to national attention.
Several of the quilters are now selling their quilts on Etsy. Look for the certified Gee's Bend Quilts logo next to the shop name to make sure that you are purchasing through a verified Gee's Bend Quilter. The Etsy shops were opened through the support of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a foundation started by William Arnett (the art dealer/collector who first brought Gee's Bend Quilts to national attention) that supports the quilters and other Black Southern American artists. The foundation also offers grants to Black designers and entrepreneurs including a grant of $600,000 in Paskho, the socially responsible, Black-owned lifestyle apparel company in March 2021.
Quilts of Gee's Bend Art Lesson Sequence
The goals of this lesson are to guide students to explore the Principles of Design through analyzing the compositions of the Quilts of Gee's bend. Students will also consider how recycled materials can be used to create abstract artworks and reflect on the history and importance of the the Quilts of Gee's Bend.
Teaching the Principles of Design
I created vector illustrations inspired by the Quilts of Gee's Bend to simplify the designs and highlight the principles used by the artists. I also created simple illustrations showing each Principle of Design. I included these more simple illustrations on a worksheet so that students could have something to reference when we learn each Principle.
The worksheet also has two areas where students can sketch out their compositions that have guidelines and are proportional to 9" X 12" or 12" X 16" paper. Students can research the quilts for inspiration and use their knowledge of the Elements of Art and Principles of Design to create two design options for their collage.
Creating a Quilts of Gee's Bend Inspired Collage
It is important to have a variety of recycled papers available for this project so that students can improvise and use different papers in their design. It is also helpful to have shape cutters (I like these 3 Pack 1" Circle, Square, Triangle punch tools) for cutting small geometric shapes.
Students can also make their own papers by using art materials to add color and texture to recycled paper they find. Students should also have rulers, compasses and other drafting tools to use to plan out their designs. Students should color their designs using colored pencils or markers. Having the color scheme determined will help them search for a variety of interesting textured/patterned papers to use to fulfill their plan.
Collage Process and Techniques
Students will measure their papers (either 9"X12" or 12"X16") and create the same grid lines that were on the worksheet to help them keep their drawing proportional, then they will sketch out the same design on their larger paper. Using the sketch as a guide they can cut out paper to fit each section of their sketch. A piece of vellum/tracing paper can be used to create a pattern if a shape is particularly detailed/specific.
I like to show my students a demonstration on how to glue as cleanly as possible using scrap sheets of paper for applying glue and a clean sheet to help press down the piece being glued down. This part of the process is where the improvisation happens. Students can bring papers from home, search through magazines, use art materials to create textured papers to fulfill the color scheme of their design. The Quilts of Gee's Bend tell a story about the lives of the quilters through the recycled materials used. This project offers students the same opportunity if they use papers that have some personal significance, for example if they are musicians they can use their old sheet music for a section of their collage.
To wrap up this lesson I ask students to reflect on the Principles of Design that are dominant in their collages (stand out) and the principles that are subordinate (less noticeable). I also ask them to reflect on their artistic choices and the personal elements they included through the use of recycled materials. This reflection can be done on paper so students can share their work in a gallery walk or hallway exhibition or on Google Slides so students can engage in a virtual exhibition and critique discussion. If you are interested in getting the full lesson including Powerpoint/Google Slides, worksheet, step by step video tutorial and day by day lesson plans you can click here.
Free Quilts of Gee's Bend Coloring Sheet
To celebrate Black History Month and the inspiring Quilts of Gee's Bend I created this coloring sheet that you can share with your students. It is a bit detailed so I recommend coloring with colored pencils or thin tip markers.
I'm a high school/middle school art teacher with 16 years of experience. I'm here to help art teachers free up more time and space in their lives through lesson ideas and ready to go content rich, engaging curriculum.