The youngest of Mary Lee Bendolph's eight children, Rubin Bendolph Jr., has said that while growing up in Gee's Bend, Ala., the only thing he noticed about his now-famous mother's quilts was their colors.
Much later, at an exhibition at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, he saw what the art world had come to recognize in her work and that of the other Gee's Bend quilters. "In the museum, there was a lady staring at one of the quilts with tears running down her face," Bendolph told Mount Holyoke College Art Museum curator Ellen Alvord in an interview. "As I began to walk over toward her, I began to see it, the art, oh, my lord it was awesome …
"I saw things that reminded me of what we went through growing up. Some people had quilts hanging up there of cotton plants, and some people had quilts of their rooftops or housetops. How did they come up with that? Then you start thinking about it, and you realize they're laying in bed and looking up in the ceiling and that's where they're getting the patterns."
His mother's ceiling was probably the template for at least two quilts in "Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph," a Mount Holyoke traveling exhibition that's now on exhibit in an edited version at Swarthmore College's List Gallery.
But Bendolph, now 83 and no longer quilting, raised the ceiling to a higher realm. Her intricate, meandering, cheerfully colored Housetop Variation (1980) suggests an abstract aerial view of a town. Her Husband Suit Clothes (Housetop Variation) (1990), with its sharp contrasts and jarring vertical and horizontal rectangles, seems almost like a fabric iteration of a Thelonius Monk composition.
Later in Bendolph's career, her quilt designs begin to resemble floor plans of houses, city plans, and perhaps the shapes of buildings. I can imagine that the simple geometric forms and saturated colors of Mexican architect Luis Barragan's houses might be a hit with Bendolph, and that he would have enjoyed hers.
That her quilts have something in common with abstract painting goes without saying. I'm reminded of Josef Albers, Peter Halley, Mary Heilmann, Sean Scully, and Stanley Whitney.
To think that Bendolph fashioned her quilts from ripped old clothes (only rarely scissored) makes her accomplishment even more marvelous.
An accompanying exhibition,"Responses to Gee's Bend," in Swarthmore's McCabe Library, offers works by 17 artists inspired by the Gee's Bend quilters.
Through Oct. 28 at List Gallery, Swarthmore College, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore, noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 610-328-8488, swarthmore.edu/list-gallery.
Works of roiling paint
David Brewster's latest paintings, which make up his solo show at Gross McCleaf Gallery, show the artist working more energetically than ever.
At first glance, Brewster's paintings appear to be abstract. But figures and landscapes then emerge as though seen through a kaleidoscope.
Brewster paints outdoors, from life, often in precarious locations and using all manner of brushes, rollers, and palette knives. He clearly enjoys the process of putting paint to a surface in challenging conditions.
This particular body of work, "Rogue Waves," seems focused on climate change, an excellent subject for roiling paint.
A group show, "Ponder," in the front gallery offers quasi-realist, meditative domestic scenes painted by Matt Klos, Tom Walton, and Sophie White.
Through Oct. 28 at Gross McCleaf Gallery, 127 S. 16th St., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. grossmccleaf.com or 215-665-8138.
Barn show in Bucks County
Art at Kings Oaks, an annual exhibition presented by Alex Cohen and Clara Weishahn on Cohen's family farm, is an opportunity to visit a particularly bucolic part of Bucks County and see a big group show — with 26 artists — in a fastidiously restored 19th-century barn.
It's worth the drive. The barn, once home to Alex's grandfather's farming machines, retains its rustic character. Most of the artworks chosen by Cohen and Weishahn complement the setting, especially Robert Winokur's ceramic houses and Linda Brenner's wood and lead sculptures.
Through Oct. 21 at Kings Oaks, 756 Worthington Mill Rd., Newtown, noon to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, noon to 8 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 215-603-6573, kingsoaksart.wordpress.com.
Robert Winokur's "Bucks County Barn" at Art at Kings Oaks.