Are quilts art? This question arose in my mind as earlier this month, I was watching a Quilt exposition at Mount Holyoke University Museum, titled “Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph”. The exposition displays the work of Mary Lee Bendolph, an Afro-American woman from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and portrays the difficulties of the black community during the years of the Great Depression. Gee’s Bend appears to have a very rich quilting tradition. Mary Lee has created more than 150 quilts in her lifetime, some of which have been exposed in many touring expositions and on U.S. postage stamps. However, this was her first solo exposition. The woman sat in the room, together with her family and shared her story, and her quilts. They were absolutely beautiful, full of colors, vitality and fantasy. In the beginning, I was skeptical in categorizing them as works of art or craft, and I expressed my doubts with friends, making this a very interesting dinner conversation that night. The quilt as I have known it was a warm piece of cloth, a bedcover that keeps me warm at night. It was odd that I could still see art in those random pieces of clothes, so attractively assembled together, but at the same time wondered how this household sewing object was properly hung for display.
Apparently, this seem to be a wide known public dispute for at least a century. Quilts are undoubtedly functional necessities, but more and more they are being treated as aesthetic wonders. In the case of Mary Lee, they have gained significant importance as family documents, historical evidence and symbolic memorials. African-American women of the isolated African-American village of Gee’s Bend, Alabama pieced together strips of cloth to make bedcovers for their families in shacks that lacked running water and electricity. Many art historians look into quilts the intersection of art, craft, design and history, despite their primary domestic function. Many fine pieces are now exposed in prestigious museum rooms, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, National Museum of American History, and many other Quilt Museums in different States across the United States. In the last century, the young generation has started to show an interest in heritage quilts as well as the craft of quilt making. In many ways, the quilt seems to be a form of artistic expression, at times being as weird and wonderful as the other artistic manifestations over years. I guess as long as these displays are a process of a creative mind and hands they deserve to be hung on a wall so curious minds can appreciate them over a lively dinner discussion.