Profile: Mary Lee Bendolph (1935-)

Mary Lee Bendolph is an American quilt maker of the Gee’s Bend Collective from Gee’s Bend (Boykin), Alabama. Her work has been influential on subsequent quilters and artists and her quilts have been exhibited in museums and galleries around the country. Mary Lee uses fabric from used clothing for quilting in appreciation of the “love and spirit” with old cloth. Mary has spent her life in Gee’s Bend and has had work featured in the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota.

In 1999 the Los Angeles Times featured Bendolph in the Pulitzer Prize-winning article “Crossing Over”, about the effort to reestablish ferry service across the Alabama River.

Biography

Mary Lee Bendolph grew up in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. She was raised in the quilting tradition, first taught by her mother at the age of 12, just two years before she began having children. She gave birth to her first child at age 14 which prevented her from going to school after the sixth grade. She married Rubin Bendolph in 1955 and they have eight children. In 1965, Bendolph participated in a march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Camden, Alabama. After retiring in 1992 Mary Lee has devoted more time to quilt making.

During the Civil Rights Movement, the quilts from Gee’s Bend gained national recognition when the women took part in the Freedom Quilting Bee. Quilts were sold across the United States and were used to bring back money to the community. The tradition of quilt making by female slaves stretches back to the 18th century.

Career

The quilts of Gee’s Bend combine the styles of traditional African American quilts with a simple geometric style that has been compared to Amish quilts and modern artists such as Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. The Gee’s Bend quilters began to attract critical attention in the late 1990s, leading to a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, and numerous subsequent exhibitions and publications.

Like her fellow Gee’s Bend members, Bendolph elevated common textiles (such as denim and corduroy) into vibrant and dynamic compositions. Attention from the formal art world has contributed to Bendolph’s self-perception as an artist, in turn leading to a conscious attempt to make new work, such as her series of intaglio prints, which she made in collaboration with her daughter-in-law, Louisiana, in 2005.

In 2006 her quilt “Housetop” variation appeared on a US Postal service stamp as part of a series commemorating Gee’s bend quilters.

She is a recipient of the 2015 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts in the United States.

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