Inspired by the Quilts of Gee's Bend

I recently finished one of the most personally fulfilling projects that I have ever worked on. I was asked to make 65 American flags at 4′ x 6′ out of recycled Levi’s jeans, one for every store. The project was inspired by the quilts of Gee’s Bend and I took it on with so much excitement I could barely contain myself. I haven’t had the attention span to sew in the past, so this was more of a challenge than usual. I bought an industrial sewing machine, brought on two great assistants, and got to shredding jeans.

Below is a little bit of history around the amazing women of Gee’s Bend who gave me the stamina and attention to detail to create these beautiful pieces. I will forever be in awe of this tiny town of artists.

Arthur Rothstein, Sewing a quilt. Gee's Bend, Alabama, 1937. Courtesy of The Library of Congress

From the Quilts of Gee’s Bend site:

Gee’s Bend is a small rural community nestled into a curve in the Alabama River southwest of Selma, Alabama. Founded in antebellum times, it was the site of cotton plantations, primarily the lands of Joseph Gee and his relative Mark Pettway, who bought the Gee estate in 1850. After the Civil War, the freed slaves took the name Pettway, became tenant farmers for the Pettway family, and founded an all-black community that was very isolated from the surrounding world. During the Great Depression, the federal government stepped in to purchase land and homes for the community, bringing strange renown — as an “Alabama Africa” — to this sleepy hamlet.

The town’s women developed a distinctive, bold, and sophisticated quilting style based on traditional American (and African-American) quilts, but with a geometric simplicity reminiscent of Amish quilts and modern art. The women of Gee’s Bend passed their skills and aesthetic down through at least six generations to the present. In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in partnership with the nonprofit Tinwood Alliance in Atlanta, presented an exhibition of 70 quilt masterpieces from the Bend. The exhibition, entitled “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” is accompanied by two companion books, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, and the larger Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts, both published by Tinwood Media, as well as a documentary video on the Gee’s Bend quilters and a double CD of Gee’s Bend gospel music from 1941 and 2002.

The “Quilts of Gee’s Bend” exhibition has received tremendous international acclaim, beginning at the show in Houston, then at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and other museums on its twelve-city American tour. Newsweek, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, Art in America, CBS News Sunday Morning, PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the Martha Stewart Living television show, House and Garden, Oprah’s O magazine, and Country Home magazine are among the hundreds of print and broadcast media organizations that have celebrated the quilts and the history of this unique town. Art critics worldwide have compared the quilts to the works of important artists such as Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. The New York Times called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

Lutisha Pettway (American, 1925-2001) "Bars" work-clothes quilt, ca. 1950 Denim and cotton 80 x 84 inches The Collection of the Tinwood Alliance Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Essie B. Pettway (b. 1956)

As you can see, the quilts are amazing, I wanted the flags to have a similar feel, handmade, worn in and with the attention to detail of someone who thought of nothing else till the project was done.

strips cut from jeans, ready to be sewn together

A glimpse into Antlre headquarters during the height of flag production

there is denim on every surface in the studio

a pile of the aftermath

10 bags of zippers and pockets to donate

we oxidized the grommets and pounded them in 1 by 1

Antlre flags for Levis windows

I was looking for a way to show the entire scope of this project. It took us about 4 months, 3000-ish pairs of Levi’s, a severe case of denim infused bronchitis and a new found love for the sewing machine. Special thanks goes out to Sarah Snyder of www.littlebunny.net, who was an amazing help throughout this process.

We had a blast putting together this video to show you the scale of the project. If you are extra patriotic try not to be offended by the fact that they are on the grass, it is out of love and lack of other space big enough that I do this.

Filmed by Fernando Cepeda

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