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“Housetop” variation

Mary Lee Bendolph ( 1998 )

On View

“Housetop” variation
  • Location Sant Building, Gallery 116
  • Period Twentieth-Century
  • Materials Cotton corduroy, twill, assorted polyesters
  • Object Number 2019.004.0001
  • Dimensions 72 in x 76 in; 182.88 cm x 193.04 cm
  • Credit Line Partial Gift, Partial purchase from Souls Grown Deep Foundation. The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions, 2019

Mary Lee Bendolph is a prominent member of the storied Alabama artist’s collective known as the Gee’s Bend quilters.[1] The small, isolated rural community has nurtured generations of Black female quilters who, beginning in the early 20th century, cultivated their creative practice out of necessity. The segregated, impoverished community in Wilcox County, Alabama, was once considered the poorest in the United States. Gee’s Bend is located near what was once the slave quarters of the Pettway plantation, where the enslaved ancestors of the quilters picked cotton—a material with a fraught history that would be essential to their quilt-making traditions.[2] 

Early Gee’s Bend quilts were pieced together with scraps of clothing and other salvaged fabrics. They were used as bedding and even spread on walls and floors to insulate houses. Women often came together to quilt the blankets that they had designed and pieced individually. In these communal creative sessions, the quilters sang, prayed, ate, and shared stories while passing on their skills and their histories to the next generation. They did not use prescribed patterns but followed irregular, even random, designs that reflect the aesthetics often found in African American slave quilts.[3] 

The Gee’s Bend quilters experienced a seismic shift in their community practice when in 1997 they were “discovered” by the collector William Arnett, who supported the work of self-taught Southern artists. Arnett saw the distinctive quilts as art rather than craft. Bendolph’s Housetop Variation was featured in the exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend that was organized by Arnett and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition traveled to major museums across the United States, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Curators and critics claimed that the bold colors and exuberant geometric abstraction of the quilts were reminiscent of European and American modernist aesthetics, although the quilters had no knowledge of modern art. The housetop quilt pattern builds on the geometry of the square and is an essential motif of the Gee’s Bend quilters.[4] 

Bendolph considers her quilt-making skill as a gift from God and the quilts as evidence of God’s graces.[5] Housetop Variation embodies the cultural, social, and spiritual complexities of the Black American experience and reveals the role that creativity has played in sustaining and nurturing Black communities through generations. The Gee’s Bend quilts are now in major museum collections across the United States, and The Phillips Collection acquired five in 2019. Now considered important examples of American art, the Gee’s Bend quilts have even been featured on a US postage stamp. 

Text by Adrienne L. Childs, as part of the Seeing U.S. Research Project


[1] “Mary Lee Bendolph,” entry, Souls Grown Deep website,, accessed November 10, 2023. 

[2] Vanessa Kraemer Sohan, “‘But a quilt is more’: Recontextualizing the Discourse(s) of the Gee’s Bend Quilts,” College English 77, no. 4 (March 2015): 294–316; and Lisa Gail Collins, Stitching Love and Loss: A Gee’s Bend Quilt (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2023), 17–28. 

[3] “The Bendolph Family of Gee’s Bend, Alabama,” Ackland Art Museum, April 20, 2023, YouTube video, 25:04,

[4] Sally Anne Duncan, “From Cloth to Canvas: Reinventing Gee’s Bend Quilts in the Name of Art,” Museum Anthropology no. 1 (2005): 19–34. 

[5] “Bendolph Family of Gee’s Bend.”

For me, the power of art lies in its capacity to tell and share stories across time, place, and context. In a recent article,[1] I discussed the restorative impact art can have when it truly resonates with the core of our humanity. The quilts of Gee’s Bend and McArthur Binion’s work DNA: Black Painting: 1 underscore the power of connecting memory, belonging, identity, and personal narrative through art.

The quilts of Gee’s Bend feature memory, personal identity, and narrative. For Gee’s Bend, the tradition of the patchwork quilt was born of scarcity and resourcefulness, arising when shortages of cloth called for the inventive salvaging of fabric scraps and remnants.[2] The transformation of mundane and overlooked objects into extraordinary things is a practice of conversion that Binion too has mastered.

Similarly, Binion intertwines autobiography and personal experience with the fiber of his creations. In works such as DNA: Black Painting: 1, he employs grids, hand-drawn lines, and photocopied versions of his birth certificate. Though his work is deeply personal, incorporating numbers from his phonebook and other private ephemera, Binion’s biographical insertions create access points for others. For example, the materiality of his birth certificate, which designates his race as Black, calls forth the “one-drop rule”[3] and sheds light on the social conditions and perspectives that shaped his life and the lives of millions of others.

In these ways, the Gee’s Bend community’s and McArthur Binion’s works speak to a universal experience of Black people in the United States, stressing the ways racial boundaries were enforced and understood, the ways people survived and even thrived despite that system.

The interplay of medium and narrative in the work of Gee’s Bend and of Binion exemplifies how objects and simple forms can create language.[4] As the chief diversity officer of The Phillips Collection, I fix on language as the entry point for larger conversations that our society needs to have about race, equity, and community. We need artists to catalyze these conversations by creatively infusing humanity into topics that are often nuanced and messy, that require us to look at our history and actions critically, and to take responsibility for things we would much sooner forget.

Stories have been found to trigger chemical responses in our brains that are associated with empathy.[5] Now more than ever, we need that empathy to bridge the divides in our communities and remind us of all that unites us. Binion and the quiltmakers at Gee’s Bend, alongside many others whose work is exhibited at The Phillips Collection, help us to do just that.


2. See

3. According to the one-drop rule, a social and legal principle of racial classification historically prominent in the United States in the twentieth century, a person with even one ancestor of African heritage (“one drop” of Black blood) is considered Black. Extensive literature on the one-drop rule attests to its persistence today.

4. See

5. See

Text by Makeba Clay, adapted from Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (The Phillips Collection in association with Giles, 2021)