ExhibitionsPatterns in Abstraction: Black Quilts from the High’s Collection
Current Exhibition

Patterns in Abstraction: Black Quilts from the High’s Collection

June 28, 2024 – January 5, 2025

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For more than a century, the potential kinship between quilts and abstract painting has sparked lively debate. Although the color-rich geometric patchwork of quilts is visually resonant with examples of abstract painting often credited as pinnacles of artistic innovation, many have argued that such comparisons fail to honor the integrity of quilts within their distinct conditions of production. Quilts made by Black women have too often been left out of the conversation altogether, a reflection of how they have also been underrepresented in art museum collections. The High has collected great examples of Black quilts since the 1980s and over the past six years has more than quintupled its holdings to ensure that Black quilts have a continually rotating presence in the museum’s collection galleries.

This collection-based exhibition is the first to bring a number of these recent acquisitions together to answer a larger question: “How can quilts made by Black women change the way we tell the history of abstract art?”

A corresponding publication through LINK, the museum’s platform for online engagement, multimedia content related to the High’s expanded and growing collection of Black quilts.

Birds in the Air, 1981

This quilt is inspired by a quilt pattern known as Birds in the Air or Flying Geese because of how its triangular patches evoke the movement of migrating birds. The careful distribution of alternating colors and uniformly cut and pieced triangular patches exemplifies Lucy T. Pettway’s reputation as a perfectionist within the legendary quilting community of Boykin, Alabama, that became known as Gee’s Bend. Pettway worked for the Freedom Quilting Bee, established in Wilcox County in 1966 to help quilters earn living wages from textile production and raise money for the Civil Rights Movement. She was influenced by the patterned quilts produced at the Bee in addition to a pattern book her aunt had received from a White family whose home she tended to across the river in Camden. Quilts like this one exemplify how Pettway blended meticulous pattern work with dynamic color schemes and unconventional designs—which often privileged rhythm over symmetry—for which Gee’s Bend quilts are known.

Lucy T. Pettway
American, 1921–2004
Birds in the Air, 1981
Cotton and cotton-polyester blend
Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S.Arnett Collection, 2017.70

Lucy T. Pettway American, 1921–2004 Birds in the Air, 1981, cotton and cotton-polyester blend

Housetop with Multiple Borders, 1940s

This quilt exemplifies Housetop—a term commonly used to describe quilts anchored by a central square medallion and framed repeatedly with vertical and horizontal strips, resembling the layout of planks in rural homes. Housetops are related to the Log Cabin pattern, favored by both White quilters and enslaved individuals who worked as household seamstresses in the 1800s. However, the construction of Log Cabin quilts typically required more fabric and time to piece together multiple medallions and create diagonal color planes across the quilt. Housetops, by contrast, could be made iteratively as fabric was available, though careful consideration was still given to the placement of color, as seen in this quilter’s use of red and yellow squares to punctuate its borders. Whereas most quilts are rectangular, the large, square shape here suggests it was made for an unusually wide bed or intended for another use. In addition to covering beds, quilts were frequently used to cover the gaps in the walls and floorboards of drafty houses—becoming a part of the architectural features that inspired them.

Maker once known
Purchased in Alabama
Housetop with Multiple Borders, 1940s
Cotton
Purchase through funds provided by patrons of Collectors Evening 2017, 2017.183

Housetop with Multiple Borders, 1940s

Multiple Housetop, 1920s

In most quilts there is a clear difference between the more decorative and often labor-intensive design of the quilt top and the less detailed backing constructed from larger pieces of fabric. This quilt is distinguished by its two tops: The Housetop medley in muted tones of olive, cream, and brown is meticulously pieced from older fabrics. The contrasting side features one halved Housetop and many checked blocks in the One Patch style. The predominant use of polyester fabrics and less uniform stitching suggests the One Patch side might have been created later by a younger friend, relative, or caretaker of the original top.

Maker once known
Purchased in Alabama
Multiple Housetop, 1920s
Cotton
Gift of Corrine Riley on the occasion of Collectors Evening 2017, 2017.198

Multiple Housetop, 1920s

Birds in the Air Variation, 1930s

In contrast to the colorful quilts that dominate this show, this summer quilt was made using only blue and white cotton fabrics. The white fabric has yellowed with age, revealing an underlying grid of blue fabric whose function is not structural, adding to the quilt’s mystery. The four central columns of directional triangles inspired by the Birds in the Air pattern are disrupted in their uniformity by flipped triangles in the bottom row to create nestled blue and white rhombuses.

The lack of information the museum has on quilts by makers once known is difficult to overcome. However, by sharing information publicly, both on our website and through LINK, the quilts are made available in the public realm, potentially leading to their identification by researchers and community members. The difficulty in recovering attributions underscores the importance of asking quilters about the specific intent, materials, and memories that go into their quilts while they are still alive, which the museum is actively doing, including in the interviews with China Pettway and Louisiana Bendolph that are part of LINK and on view in the exhibition.

Maker once known
Purchased in Alabama
Birds in the Air Variation, 1930s
Cotton
Purchase through funds provided by patrons of Collectors Evening 2017, 2017.184

Birds in the Air Variation, 1930s

Blocks and Strips Medallion, 2003

A fourth-generation quilter, Louisiana Bendolph was greatly influenced by her predecessors, including her mother-in-law, Mary Lee Bendolph. Yet as a young adult, Louisiana stopped her practice to focus on work and caring for her growing family, who possessed ample quilts and lived in homes with central heating and air. In 2002, she traveled to Texas to see The Quilts of Gee’s Bend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and was brought to tears by the inclusion of her grandmother Annie E. Pettway: “When she had died, she was just ‘Mama,’ but now she had been reborn as someone who people were respecting, and all of a sudden she was important to other people in a way she had only been to us. [. . .] She is now known all over the world. In a way, she’s alive in that quilt,” she said. Louisiana resumed her quilting practice soon after.

This quilt deviates from traditional Housetop compositions by introducing a unique element: an extended black border framing the colorful central arrangement of blocks and strips, setting off its colors so that it appears like a panel of stained glass. Louisiana frequently creates pieces to deconstruct later, redistributing their parts into new quilts, as she did with this one.

Louisiana Bendolph
American, born 1960
Blocks and Strips Medallion, 2003
Cotton and polyester fabric
Purchase with funds from Peggy, Margaret, and Mary Rawson Foreman and gift of the artist and the Tinwood Alliance in honor of Rawson Foreman, 2005.301

Blocks and Strips Medallion, 2003

Housetop, 2004

Mary Lee Bendolph complicated the central Housetop medallion by incorporating sawtooth strips cut along a bias (or forty-five-degree angle), a unique technique in quilts constructed from corduroy. Typically, corduroy is cut along the vertical lines of its pinwales, but Bendolph deviated from this norm when she created this piece in 2004 using corduroy fabric that became available in Wilcox County, including in Gee’s Bend, in 1972. The fabric was introduced when the Freedom Quilting Bee received a contract to make corduroy pillow shams for Sears and Roebuck. The sturdy columns of wide rectangular strips flanking the medallion exemplify the architectural aesthetics of Housetop quilts, whose stacked and layered strips evoke the hand-built structures that once dominated Gee’s Bend.

Mary Lee Bendolph
American, born 1935
Housetop, 2004
Quilted cotton corduroy fabric
Purchase with funds from Peggy, Margaret, and Mary Rawson Foreman and gift of the artist and the Tinwood Alliance in honor of Rawson Foreman, 2005.302

Housetop, 2004

Housetop, undated

Annie Mae Young, a renowned master quilter from Gee’s Bend, was known for her unique approach to quilting and independent spirit. She did not fit in with members of the community who worked for the Freedom Quilting Bee, preferring to follow her own creative path, exemplified in the nonconformist stitching of this quilt. “I never did like the book patterns some people had. Those things had too many little bitty blocks. I like big pieces and long strips,” she said. “I work it out, study the way to make it, get it to be right, kind of like working a puzzle.” Young constructed the bottom right corner-border of this quilt partially from a blue fabric printed with white stars, reminiscent of the canton (top inner quarter) of the United States flag. This hints at the quilt’s patriotic verso, in which the blue and white-starred print and the large blocks of red and white gingham fabric create an abstract portrait of the American flag.

Annie Mae Young
American, 1928–2013
Housetop, undated
Fabric
Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S.Arnett Collection, 2017.79

Annie Mae Young American, 1928–2013 Housetop, undated, fabric.

A Star Among Stars, 2017–2020

Atlanta-based quilter O.V. Brantley grew up in Arkansas during the Jim Crow era and did not attend integrated schools until she was in the seventh grade. “Discipline and fortitude took me to college, law school and a high-profile legal career. Proving I was ‘just as good as’ (or better) is a large part of my life,” she remembers. Since taking up quilting in the 1990s as a way of coping with stress from her career—which included sixteen years as Fulton County’s deputy city attorney—Brantley has made many red and white quilts like this one, which reflect her pride as a founding charter member of Delta Sigma Theta at the University of Arkansas. But this quilt stands apart: to make it, Brantley challenged herself with an English Paper pattern that required piecing approximately three thousand small geometric shapes by hand with a precision that allows all the pieces to fit together. The quilt became a test of her discipline and determination “to be a star when tackling important tasks.” According to Brantley, the Black angels who herald the perfectly interlocking hexagonal medallions of the quilt represent her flourish and spiritual side: “I believe my angels are always with me, encouraging me when I want to stop and rejoicing when I succeed.”

O.V. Brantley
American, born 1954
A Star Among Stars, 2017–2020
Cotton fabric and buttons
Purchase with funds from Black Quilts and Contemporary Art Centennial Initiative, 2024.35

A Star Among Stars, 2017–2020

Nine Patch, 2016–2018

Early in her career, Marquetta Johnson learned dyeing techniques from a South African artist working at the now defunct Neighborhood Arts Center in Summerhill, Atlanta. As she refined those methods to make them more sustainable, Johnson became renowned for her fabrics across national quilting communities, catching the attention of the celebrated artist Faith Ringgold, who began sourcing fabric from her. Johnson later published a book documenting her dyeing process for which she created hundreds of sample swatches, later using them as patches in this symmetrical and challenging version of a Nine Patch pattern. Many quilters learn the basics of piecing by starting with Nine Patch blocks, which are formed from nine equal square patches, but Johnson turned this simple pattern into the largest quilt she has ever made, challenging herself to focus on a monumental artistic goal while she was also mourning the loss of her son. Within each of the fifty-six Nine Patch blocks, she created dynamic compositions, joining cut pieces of her dyed swatches together. The variety of color and line speaks to the resilience of the human spirit, even as it is forced to move through grief.

Marquetta Johnson
American, born 1955
Nine Patch, 2016–2018
Hand-dyed and hand-painted cotton fabric
Gift of the artist, 2022.204

Marquetta Johnson American, born 1955 Nine Patch, 2016–2018, hand-dyed and hand-painted cotton fabric

LINK Digital Publication

In May 2023, the museum held a convening of curators, quilters, and scholars to address many questions about how Black quilts should be better represented in museums and art history, including, “How can quilts made by Black women change the way we tell the history of abstract art?” Many convening participants subsequently accepted an invitation to respond to this question with short essays for an expansive LINK digital publication that includes the High’s entire growing collection of Black quilts, as well as video content and a longform essay about the past, present, and future of quilt collecting at the High. Through LINK, quilts from the collection—including those that lack attribution—are available in the public realm, potentially leading to their identification by researchers and community members.

This exhibition is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Leadership Exhibition Support is provided by the John and Rosemary Brown Family Foundation.

This exhibition is made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor 

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters

Mr. Joseph H. Boland, Jr.

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters

Robin and Hilton Howell

Ambassador Exhibition Series Supporters

Loomis Charitable Foundation
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters 

Farideh and Al Azadi
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Megan and Garrett Langley
Margot and Danny McCaul
Wade A. Rakes II and Nicholas Miller
Belinda Stanley-Majors and Dwayne Majors

Generous support is also provided by  

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.