At the racecourse, about a quarter of an hour before the 9.30am opening, we were the third car in the carpark. My experience of other large quilt/craft shows is that, by such a time, the carpark is anything but empty. We were glad there was some signage about, so we were in the right place. Odd. Unsettling, These are GEE'S BEND quilts on show here, acclaimed modern American art.
We wandered up to buy tickets, chatting to some quilting friends (the fourth and fifth cars held quilters we knew, and no, that's not what you usually find, either - Sydney's a city of millions, after all, and the craft show included scrapbooking/papercrafts, thus gathering in people from a different crafting milieu). The longest queue was to get in at 9.30, and we were in that queue for at least two minutes, but no more. Also unheard of. Odder and odder - these are Gee's Bend quilts here...and not unfamiliar, I would have said, to ?the majority of quilters, or at least those interested in art quilts/quilt history, or toddling around the blogosphere or quilting email lists.
In we went, the Gee's Bend quilts our goal. There were quilts on exhibition from several quilt magazines, representing Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Japan. But where - ? We walked past aisles, around corners, past the five or six retailers (only five or six?) and on to the quilts.
Right at the back, in two alleys, were the Gee's Bend quilts. I can't show you photos, because there were No Photography signs (thus the photo of the flyers instead). The catalogue had thumbnails of each of the quilts on display - all were for sale, for prices mostly in the thousands, a few in the tens of thousands.
Maybe the sales angle was the reason they were here, tucked on temporary white alleyways behind an escalator in a racecourse stand, for one weekend only. When their arrival in Sydney was first publicised, some months ago, I contacted a major museum that exhibits textiles among other things, and suggested they should look again at these quilts, given their standing and the success of such exhibitions in major US museums and galleries. Couldn't get them interested.
So here we were. Desperately glad to get a chance to see the quilts for real, not just moderated through a photograph.
What was good:
Being able to see them at all. Magic. Amazing.
Being able to see detail of workmanship - which varied a lot, and demonstrated a variety of different decisions/choices on the part of the makers.
Being able to see a range, from some one considered more successful to others which seemed less graphically successful. The most successful ones, to me, usually involved plainer or tone on tone fabrics - often still a scrap-based variety, but my preference is for the patterning of piecing, in these quilts, over the patterns on fabrics.
We were there early, so had a fair amount of time to browse them before the aisles held more people - but it wasn't at all crowded.
Reading the few laminated biography sheets there about some of the quilters, their family histories and how and why they quilt. It would have been good if they'd set aside an area somewhere, as many museum exhibits do, continuously running the documentary about Gee's Bend and the quilts, so you could see them talking, hear their voices.
What wasn't good:
The sadness of something this amazing being tucked away into a weekend at a racecourse for the quilting fraternity. One of the things about the Gee's Bend quilts, for me, is their capacity to amaze and engage non quilters with the possibilities of quilting as an art form, modern design, in all sorts of ways prompt the response, "I didn't know quilts could be like that!" My guess is that the only people there who weren't quilters were accompanying quilters.
If you look at Citysearch, or the Sydney Morning Herald, there is NOTHING about this exhibition. Nothing. That's such a shame. If an exhibition like this is to find an audience beyond the quilting fraternity, it needs to be publicised to the mainstream media to reach that audience.
The layout - two alleys of them - meant that you could only stand back a few feet to see each quilt. In a larger gallery situation, you can stand back further, see the quilts in different ways. When I was in Melbourne at the NGV in January, one of the pleasures of the rooms, large and small, was the chance to stand back and see items from a distance, as well as up close.
An hour and a half later, we were done. We'd studied the quilts, discussing what engaged us, what our expectations had been, how they had been met/adjusted by the reality of the quilts. I'm still utterly delighted to have finally had the chance to view the real thing, after reading about them for so long. If you have a chance to go today, then do (parking won't be a problem). Among the rest of the quilts on display, we enjoyed seeing them all and were very impressed with a number. Without the Gee's Bend quilts being there, would we have gone? No.
As a quilter and quilt history enthusiast, I'm so sorry that the capacity of these quilts to evangelise, to connect with people, was confined by their context and the limitations of this exhibition. I hope a major gallery or museum does mount a proper exhibition of them in Sydney in the future.
Added later: The Gee's Bend exhibition that has been touring the US for several years is Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt. It's in Philadelphia now (thanks for the tip, Candy). If you want to see what a comprehensive exhibition can involve (and this is just if you access the website, let alone if you go to see the quilts) then here are some links - make sure you investigate the tabs on each page to go deeper/learn more, and also listen to the podcasts:
- Main exhibition page , including podcasts
- Teaching materials , including details of quilts and quilters
- The Gee's Bend Photographs , an exhibition by Linda Day Clark, including podcasts
- Quilt Stories: the Ella King Torrey Collection of African American Quilts , a related exhibition running concurrently.
Hmmm. Can we have that in Sydney, please? And just while I'm being curious, why is the exhibition in Sydney not mentioned at all on the Quilts of Gee's Bend website page about current exhibitions ? Or on the Tinwood Media website (publisher/promoter of Gee's Bend quilts)? What was on exhibition in Sydney?
If you haven't read it before, here's the 2002 review from the New York Times which acclaimed the Gee's Bend quilts as astonishing modern art.