Tag Archives: Gee’s Bend quilts

For last

Cambridge, Mass.

From Geneva, Illinois, to Richmond, Indiana; from there to Cambridge, Mass., and then to Concord, Mass.: orbiting around the “hub of the solar system.” Today was the day to fall down the gravity well, and into Boston, the Hub, itself.

Boston’s cultural institutions shaped me in ways I only dimly realize: Fenway Park, Symphony Hall, 25 Beacon Street; and perhaps more than anything else, the Boston Museum. So thence I road the Green Line trolley cars today.

Walking down Hollis Street towards the Davis Square subway station, along a narrow brick sidewalk where a tree has grown and uprooted bricks and spilled out over the granite curbstone and taken up more than half the sidewalk, so there’s just room for one person to pick their way between it and the white picket fence.

I got off the E-line trolley at Northeastern so I could walk the last few blocks to the Museum. First stop: the musical instruments collection. I thought every great museum had a musical instruments collection, and was shocked when I went to the Art Institute and found they did not. Another way Boston has shaped me: seeing musical instruments as art, not as beautiful objects for making music. I looked particularly at a mountain dulcimer made by James Edward Thomas, simple, elegant, painted black.

To the Asian art to look at Chinese hand scrolls. A scroll titled “Peach Blossom Spring,” by Qiu Yung of the Ming dynasty era, caught my attention. Excerpts from Tao Yuanming’s “Account of Peach Blossom Spring” accompanied the scroll:

During the Taiyuan reign of the Jin, there was a native of Wuling who made his living catching fish. Following a creek, he lost track of the distance he had travelled, when all of a sudden he came upon forests of blossoming peach trees on both shores. For several hundred paces, there were no other trees mixed in. The fragrant herbs were fresh and lovely, and the falling petals drifted eveywhere in profusion. The fisherman found this quite remarkable and proceeded on to find the end of the forest.

The forest ended at a spring and here the fisherman found a mountain. There was a small opening in the mountain and it vaguely seemed as if there were light in it. He left his boat and went in through the opening. At first it was very narrow, just wide enough for one person to get through. Going on a few dozen paces, it spread out into a clear space.

The land was broad and level, and there were cottages neatly arranged. There were good fields and lovely pools with mulberry, bamboo, and other such things. Field paths criss-crossed, and dogs and chickens could be heard. There, going back and forth to ther work planting, were men and women whose clothes were in every way just like those of people everywhere. Graybeards, and children with their hair hanging free, all looked contented and perfectly happy.

When the people saw the fisherman, they were shocked. They asked where he had come from and he answered all their questions. Then they invited him to their homes, where they served him and killed a chicken for a meal. When it was known in the village that such a person was there, everyone came to ask him questions.

The villagers said that their ancestors had fled the upheavals during the Qin dynasty and had come to this region bringing their wives, children, and fellow townsmen. They had never left it and thus had been cut off from people outside. When asked what age it was, they didn’t know even of the existence of the Han dynasty, much less the Wei or Jin.

In some ways, the story of Peach Blossom Spring reminds me of Boston.

The show of quilts from Gee’s Bend has at last reached the Boston Museum — it was at the Art Institute a while ago, before we started living outside Chicago. Polly Bennet, one of the quilters, said the following — one of the best statements for any artist, or craftsperson, or manufacturer:

Up until the start the quilting bee [a cooperative manufacturing effort in the community of Gee’s Bend], I just use old throw-away clothes [to make quilts]. I started buying material in ’66. I was one of them that built the quilting bee up. For that time I was making stuff that was being ordered. Star quilts, Trip around the World, –and a pattern they call Four Star. People would know my name and ask for a quilt I make. And I always make things just for my own pleasure, too. I like to try something I ain’t never made before. And I work on it until I get it straight. I want it fixed right because my quilts might go somewhere I ain’t never going to go, so they going to say, “This quilt made by Polly Bennet.” I got to put my best on it.

I particularly noticed this remark because during the trip out here, my sister Jean talk about what it is like getting her book published. Books and quilts go out, and people use them for what they will. Did Polly Bennet ever think the quilt she made in 1942, at the age of 40, this two-sided quilt in blocks, did she ever think it would wind up hanging in a museum rather than spread out over someone’s bed? Well, maybe she did –maybe she dreamed it just that way.

Carol joined me at the museum after work, and we saw an Italian film there, “After Midnight” (Dopo Mezzanote), part of the museum’s excellent film series. While waiting for the film to start, C. came up to say hello, someone I had known when I worked at the Watertown, Mass., church. The narrator of the film said:

Tales, where do they come from?… Tales are like dust in the wind…. Perhaps places are the best way to tell stories.

And then, describing the heroine, Amanda, the narrator says:

Amanda wishes she had a better life, but mostly she settles for dreaming about it — which is a common attitude.

We caught the trolley, and transferred to the Red line, and came back out here to Cambridge. So I finally made it in to the Hub. Maybe it would have been better to go to Fenway Park, but the results would have been the same.

Tomorrow — on to New Bedford, and the end of the trip.