Monday, October 09, 2006

Isolation and Creativity: The Quilts of Gee's Bend

We saw the exhibit "Quilts of Gee's Bend" last month, and as I slowly read the book about Gee's Bend and look at the pictures of these amazing works of art, I wonder about the relationship between isolation and creativity.

Gee's Bend was a geographically isolated town in Alabama. The citizens were also racially isolated because they were black, and economically isolated because they were very poor.

The quilts were rapidly and crudely made --- they needed five or six quilts on each bed in the winter, and these were large families of eight, nine or ten children. One quilter related that the kids might tear a quilt apart in a year (probably because the fabric was old.) So the women were pressed to keep up a production of as many as 20 or 30 quilts a year (in addition to working in the fields, keeping house, taking care of children and having a new baby every year or two.)

But making quilts was one of the few creative things they could do. After ripping apart old clothing, and worn household textiles, and grabbing on to any other kind of fabric they could find, they started assembling the pieces: Color against color, shapes (mostly rectangles) in endlessly varied configurations. Some kind of bed coverings were a necessity, but the designs in these quilts go far beyond utility.

Several scholarly articles accompany the photographs in the book. Each author ponders the reasons why this particular group of women was able to develop a common activity into such a high art form. I think isolation was an important (though not the only) factor.

I know that many artists work best in groups or "schools" and I am always amazed at the people who write best in cafes or other public places. But I find that my own creativity is often born out of isolation --- or perhaps deprivation is a better word. When I don't have much reading material, I'm more likely to write. Apparently I need a diet of so many words a day, and if I don't get them by reading, I feel the need to create them myself. If my environment is bleak, I'm inspired to "fix it up" by adding color or ornament, or simply by rearranging things.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I feel the same way when I'm overstimulated by an exhibit as I do when I've eaten too much rich food. I didn't sleep the night after seeing the Quilts of Gee's Bend. I wanted to get up and start making quilts! But I'll be going back in a few weeks for another dose. They're just too good to miss!


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