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Entries in Mary Lee Bendolph (2)


Mary Lee Bendolph and Kenojuak Ashevak

Mary Lee Bendolph -- born in Gee’s Bend, Alabama,1935

Kenojuak Ashevak -- born in the hunting camp of Ikirasak, Nunavut,1927

Two acclaimed women artists, living in different cultures thousands of miles apart. Each has had book-length studies written on their lives and work.

Mary Lee Bendolph


Each artist’s work is so recognized that it has appeared on a national stamp.

Mary Lee Bendolph’s “Housetop” quilt appeared on a 39-cent US stamp in 2006.

Kenojuak’s “Enchanted Owl,” a landmark print in Canada, appeared as a stamp there in 1980.

But what most characterizes each woman aren’t these accolades and the appearance of their work in major museums around the world – but rather their humble spirits and their faithfulness to their communities and to the way of life that each has known and loved.

Kenojuak now lives in a home in town rather than in a qarmaq, but she chooses to live as the others in Kinngait do…simply. And she still loves to fish.

And you can find Mary Lee Bendolph, as we did, out tending her land. “I can walk outside and look around in the yard and see ideas all around the front and back of my house,” Mary Lee says.

There are hidden places in the woods around Gee’s Bend where people pray. One of Mary Lee’s praying places is her barn.

Both have had long difficult stretches in their lives. Both have raised many children and grandchildren whom they continue to help raise and support.

And neither needs some high-blown artistic “theory” to explain how and why they work. They speak with a practical commonsense wisdom instead – and in neither case is their art dissociated from the rest of their day-to-day lives.

"When I'm doing graphic work, sometimes I have to hold the paper and look at it and feel it, and then the work starts to come out," Kenojuak explains.

“A piece of paper from the outside world is as thin as the shell of a snowbird’s egg,” she also says.

Once someone sent bell-bottom leisure suits to Gee’s Bend, thinking, “These people are so poor they could use these clothes.” But no one in Gee’s Bend wanted them either.

Except Mary Lee. “I’ll take them,” she said.

And she made a quilt from them..

(The above is Debi’s blog, -- the idea for it and images and text. But as I read through myself, I can't resist an aside...

…because these two women, Kenojuak and Mary Lee Bendolph -- and what they mean to Debi -- remind me of a print Debi’s had for years in her own “praying place” back home. It’s Leonardo’s cartoon of “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist.”

It’s hard to clearly separate the figures of the two women. Mary gazes ethereally at her son. Her own mother, St. Anne, gazes with a fixity that seems both masculine and feminine at her. Mary has borne and will raise the Savior. Anne is the rock-solid support beneath them all.

As I read what Debi’s written of Kenojuak and Mary Lee Bendolph – and am reminded of this Leonardo print that Debi keeps back home – I think of this beautiful indivisibility between the artistic and the motherly in these women’s lives.

And I find myself asking: what is it about our own modern sensibilities and culture that we so often manufacture rifts between the two?

Or else, most recently, we push some ironic inversion of this integration – the do-everything professional working woman – so far that it turns into a “hockey mom…a pit bull with lipstick.”

An image that far from questioning the failures of aggression joins and reifies it instead.

No wonder Debi is recognizing – including within herself – something quite different at work here.)


Mary Lee Bendolph - Gee's Bend, Alabama

When we found Mary Lee Bendolph, she was raking the wide cut field that stretches out in front of her home.

This is perhaps not the expected way to meet a major American artist.

But art wasn't a word that Mary Lee or other Gee's Bend quilters ever thought to apply to the work they do.

But what words do you have for work like this?

Mary Lee was forced to stop her schooling when she was fourteen. She deeply regrets this.

When we look at her quilts, we regret that our own schooling didn't end then, too.

I've cut alot of brush in Big Sur. Mary Lee's son has just cut and cleared this beautiful open field.

So we had alot to talk about.

This is one of Arthur Rothstein's photographs that he took in Gee's Bend in 1937. Mary Lee was born two years earlier. Her future husband Rubin is one of the small boys in the right center of the photo.

Mary Lee's own Roosevelt home is in the background behind her. It was built in the very spot of that clapboard cabin that Rothstein photographed above. When he took the photograph, he wasn't standing far from where Mary Lee is now.

And Mary Lee's current home is also the same spot where Rothstein took this iconic photograph of young Artelia Bendolph.

One blustery rainy night in February 1965, a preacher drove up slowly in a caravan of cars along the mud roads of Gee's Bend. "They had a little prayer," Mary Lee says. "They sung a song. And then they turned it over to him." The preacher had a virus and had been losing his voice for days. It was after midnight by the time he spoke. But that night, he made the walls of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church shake.

Mary Lee had never heard anyone speak like this before.

"He told her that she might not speak with perfect grammar, might not own more than one dress, might not be more than a dirt farmer descended from slaves, but she was every bit as good as those white folks across the river. Tears filled his eyes as he shouted, 'I come over here to Gee's Bend to tell you--you are somebody.'

"No one had ever said that to Mary Lee before."

Mary Lee met the preacher again across the river in Camden and gave him a big hug. She saw him in Selma, too, and watched in awe as he drank from a "whites only" drinking fountain.


"I never saw a black person do a thing like that!" she says. "I was so glad. I said, 'I'm going to get me a taste my own self.'"

Mary Lee has dreams of the future that she always trusts. So when she kept hearing the preacher say that he had a dream, Mary Lee understood.

"I have them too," Mary Lee thought.

Many Gee's Benders were in Selma when the Voting Rights march began on "Bloody Sunday" in March 1965. Marchers stopped and knelt and prayed when they came to a phalanx of state police who blocked their way at the foot of Edmund Pettus bridge.

Then the police rushed at them and beat and drove them back.

And Gee's Benders were again among the marchers three weeks later when an outraged America forced Lyndon Johnson to send federal troops to protect the march.

When you drive from Atlanta to Gee's Bend, you re-trace that same journey through Selma and Montgomery yourself.

You can stand on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery yourself.

You can remember when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.

And you can re-commit yourself even if you haven't yet paid the price that others have.

When the preacher was killed, they found two mules to pull his hearse, as symbols of the man's humility and commitment to the poor.

They found the mules in Gee's Bend.

Sometimes in Mary Lee's dreams, God visits her.

Wait until you meet her before giving assurance to your skepticism about that.