Freedom and Order: The Quilt Masterpieces of Gee’s Bend – Revisited

By Alice Bernstein

A new exhibition has just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South.” It includes sculpture, painting, and some of the amazing Gee’s Bend Quilts. As the public has a new chance to view these quilts, I want people to know of a thrilling class taught by Aesthetic Realism Consultant and artist, Marcia Rackow in which she described the beauty of so many of them and placed their importance as art and for people’s lives.  In the museum/gallery classes she teaches, The Visual Arts and the Opposites, the art of the world is studied—from the masters at the Metropolitan Museum, treasures of African art, to the latest works showing in New York’s galleries—based on in the great principle stated by Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

The particular class which I tell of now and was happy to attend in 2003 was taught by Ms. Rackow at the Whitney Museum’s exhibition “Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts,” which included 70 quilts made from 1920-1990 by descendants of slaves in rural Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Astounding in their variety and ingenuity they were described by one critic as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” They came to national attention with the Freedom Quilting Bee, a cooperative arising from the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and were sold at Bloomingdale’s and Sak’s, providing income for the quiltmakers. But they were largely forgotten until the 1990s, when they were rediscovered by art collector William Arnett and his family—and led to travelling shows which have been touring museums ever since.

Ms. Rackow described the African American women who made the quilts, and whose families were tenant farmers on the former Pettway plantation. Most grew up in log cabins with walls covered with newspapers and magazines to keep out wind and cold. Here quiltmaking, handed down over four generations, was a necessity of life, making use of old, worn-out clothes, remnants, cotton sheets and feed sacks. In a documentary shown at the Whitney, women told how nothing was thrown away: “There were no extras. We were so poor, you couldn’t imagine it.” Some walked many miles a day working in the fields.

Yet in the midst of misfortune and pain they made these beautiful quilts. All art, Eli Siegel was the philosopher to explain, arises from the deepest desire in every person: “to like the world honestly.” We saw stirring evidence for this as Marcia Rackow discussed the designs and technique of many quilts. “Out of a life of great hardship,” she said, “these women show the indomitable desire to like the world, give form to it–beautiful form.”

She read these questions about Freedom and Order from Eli Siegel’s historic Fifteen Questions, “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?”:

“Does every instance of beauty in nature and beauty as the artist presents it have something unrestricted, unexpected, uncontrolled?—and does this beautiful thing in nature or beautiful thing coming from the artist’s mind have, too, something accurate, sensible, logically justifiable, which can be called order?”

Said Ms. Rackow, “There is a terrific sense of symmetry and order in the quilts, and also something very unexpected, free, even mischievous.” She discussed Arcola Pettway’s “Lazy Gal” Variation 1976, a Bicentennial quilt composed like an American flag—a drama in corduroy stripes of intense, vibrant colors and also cool colors. While the pattern is regular—horizontal bands of stripes, she pointed to subtle and unexpected color combinations—one dark blue horizontal strip next to the brown is restful, but next to red it vibrates. “There is,” she said, “a true spirit of independence in the way the women quilted.” 

This was visually evident in varieties of classic and often used designs: Chinese Coins, Flying Geese, Housetop, and Lazy Gal, which I liked very much. Yet each work is unique. Annie Mae Young said: “I never did like the book patterns….I like big pieces and long strips. However I get them, that’s how I used them. I work it out, study the way to…find the colors and the shapes and certain fabrics that work out right.”

Loretta Pettway’s “Medallion” (1960), made of synthetic knit and cotton sacking is one of the most dramatic and beautiful. Said Ms. Rackow, “It looks so modern in its design. On a black background there is a narrow white rectangular border—very simple, with a rectangular shape in the center. The white band is wild—it doesn’t follow the outside shape but curves and dances in space. There are curving rows of white stitching on the black, like tiny stars in the night.”

“The rectangular shape in the center,” she pointed out, “is created by two columns of lively colored stripes—vertical on the left, horizontal on the right. Lavender, pale green, orange, bright red and black, are in a free, vibrant relation. There is an optical effect of almost opposite colors: lavender and orange and the sweetness and acidity of lavender again with green. There’s a terrific interplay of surface and depth: we go into darkness and emerge from it. It is very orderly and symmetrical, but also wonderfully mischievous: the shapes are not quite rectangular, and the stripes are uneven and curve in space. The regular is irregular, in motion. It is an amazing work.”

Ms. Rackow continued, “The women who made these quilts came to expression that shows the desire for aesthetics in the human spirit. These quilts, in their form and beauty, are an implicit criticism of the brutal economic and racial injustice these women endured.” I have learned from Aesthetic Realism that unless the opposites of freedom and order, or freedom and justice are together, horrors result.  Slaveowners in the South, after all, felt it was their freedom to own other human beings.  

I have also learned that we all have a choice when we see something in the world that is ugly and can’t be liked—we will use it either for contempt or respect. With all these women saw and endured, they made art in these beautiful quilts.  There is good freedom, even something critical—things are shaken up—but that shaking up is in behalf of respect and true order.

I was moved to tears by Lutisha Pettway’s “Bars,” 1950, denim and cotton 80×84 inches. A memorial to her husband who died, it is made from his only possessions: work clothes. The worn out, faded areas,  bleach stains, dark places where pockets and cuffs were removed, become elements of a large design. Nine vertical columns of pant legs and sleeves, patches filling out holes, and here and there a syncopated horizontal band—all make for a tremendously alive feeling: a oneness of presence and unbearable absence. Through the energetic rhythms of fabric, what emerges from the worn cloth is something that puts together abstract design and deep emotion.

What I saw and learned in this wonderful class brought to my mind these lines from Eli Siegel’s poem, “Let the Seeing Go On,” lines I see as standing for the Gee’s Bend artists and their quilts:

Take worn and tattered something 

And show it, too, unworn, untattered, 


Seen largely.

Alice Bernstein is a journalist, Aesthetic Realism Associate, civil rights historian and editor/co-author of  the book, Aesthetic Realism & the Answer to Racism. Consultant and art educator Marcia Rackow is on the faculty of the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation. Learn more at:

This article originally appeared in The Tennessee Tribune

By Brittani Hunter

In the new age of technol­ogy, social media networks like Twitter and Instagram are serving as effective recruiting channels.

In addition, often times tal­ented candidates are finding jobs without applying the tra­ditional way. These candidates are being recruited by employ­ers through social media be­cause of their highly engaged profiles that display their ex­pertise and skills.

Recently, artist Davian Chester was offered a job by Google after his photo of his Juneteenth doodle went viral.

Google is known for mak­ing creative doodles for holi­days and historical milestones, but when they somehow forgot to commemorate Juneteenth, Chester decided to take mat­ters into his own hands.

“I was planning on mak­ing an art piece for it anyway, but I noticed Google did not do anything at all. And for a large company like that to cre­ate doodles for literally every­thing under the sun and have nothing at all today, I thought it was odd, ” Chester shared.

“I feel it’s very important for us to know as much as we can about our ancestors,” Ches­ter said. “So I feel Juneteenth is already something that isn’t be­ing spread across as much as it should be.

The sketch of a Black per­son’s hands breaking free of shackles formed to spell out the word “Google” went viral and by the end of the day had been shared by hundreds of thou­sands of users on social media.

Chester’s talent and viral post ended up getting the atten­tion of tech giant Google. On June 24th, just five days after his doodle went viral, Ches­ter revealed on Facebook that Google offered him a job.

By Eddy “Precise” Lamarre

Jermaine Hill is currently serving as the music director for the production of “The Music Man” at Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Hill’s journey in musical theater began at 5 years old when he started playing the piano. He grew up in New York with an affinity for Broadway productions and went on to receive a Bachelor of Music from Ithaca College and a Master of Music from New England Conservatory in Boston. In addition to his work with Goodman Theatre and other regional playhouses, Hill is an assistant professor of theater and music director at Columbia College Chicago.

Rolling out spoke with Hill about his passion and experience as a Black man working in this space.

When did you know that music direction was something that you could do well?

I music directed a cabaret my senior year of high school and knew that was what I wanted to do. I loved performing, but there is something about helping other actors to bring their characters to life that I’m passionate about.

Talk about your experience as a Black musical director in the theater.

I did feel a bit of a sense of “Who is this guy?” when I first started working at some of the larger houses, but I hope that the quality of my work demonstrates that I work hard to be good at what I do. I think it’s important for all of us who are working in the field to serve as examples to future generations of artists and to give back to and mentor other artists in our communities. It is critical for institutions to have serious conversations around institutional power and maintaining accountability and transparency to communities and artists who are still underrepresented.

“The Music Man” is your latest job. What can the audience expect that is unique to you?

I dive deeply into score study and text analysis to try to bring the composer and lyricist’s vision alive. I find that my attention to detail and specificity is the key to unlocking compelling performances from the actors I work with.

What are your top two favorite musicals?

I love “The Wiz.” It was the first musical I did in high school and one of the reasons I knew I wanted to do musical theater professionally. The music is iconic. The show is an extraordinary achievement in terms of how it reimagines a “traditional” story and gives voice and visibility to theater-makers and musical styles not traditionally represented.

“The Light in the Piazza” is one of the most stunning, challenging and ultimately fulfilling scores in the musical theater canon. Adam Guettel wrote an incredibly gorgeous neo-classical work, and I think every moment of the score is absolutely brilliant. Every time I hear the last song in the show, “Fable,” I burst into tears.

What is next for you?

I start rehearsals for “The Color Purple,” then I move into serving as director [for] “A Man of No Importance” at Columbia College Chicago. After that, I move into rehearsals for “Sophisticated Ladies” where I’ll be music directing and serving as a pianist [and] conductor.

“The Music Man” runs through Aug. 11, 2019, at Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

By The Charleston Chronicle

Fresh Future Farm was awarded a Southern Creative Places grant from South Arts to create public art that educates, creates conversations and increases community pride. Farm staff worked closely with the SC History Room at the Charleston County Main Library and Don Campagna, History and Archives Coordinator for the City of North Charleston to verify and uncover little known historic information. Anik Hall, the Farm’s 23-year-old Special Projects Manager, collaged images of the neighborhood from the 1500’s to the present and received approval from the City to begin the work.

Comcast employees prepped the space for the project last spring. Hall translated the collage mock-up into a 50’ x 12’ life sized replica on the back wall of FFF’s grocery store. Staff members started recording oral histories using the StoryCorps app. To complement its work, FFF was awarded a fellowship from the League of Creative Interventionists, a national organization invested in building a network of artists doing creative placemaking work.

The Farm will host a community dinner that celebrates the mural’s completion and expands their oral histories project to include additional narratives from current and former residents later this year. These videos will be recorded for FFF’s YouTube channel and future podcast. Fresh Future Farm and the League will post event details on social media when they are available.

As part of Fresh Future Farm’s Kickstarter capital campaign, donors can pay to have their names added to the mural. To view the public artwork, visit Fresh Future Farm Tuesdays through Fridays from 12 pm to 7 pm and Saturdays from 7 am to 12 pm. Current and former residents are invited to share pictures and stories with the farm by emailing Anik at All collected information will live on the Farm’s YouTube page and in a scrapbook.

This article originally appeared in the Charleston Chronicle

By Sam Shepard

Directed by Ensemble Member Randall Arney

The highly anticipated revival of Shepard’s masterpiece featuring a new generation of Steppenwolf ensemble

Now in rehearsals, Steppenwolf Theatre Company presents its first revival of the play that launched the theatre onto the national scene in 1982, True West, directed by ensemble member Randall Arney. Through the lens of a new generation of Steppenwolf artists, the 2019 production stars ensemble members Jon Michael Hill (CBS’s Elementary; Steppenwolf, Lincoln Center, and Spike Lee’s Pass Over) and Namir Smallwood (Lincoln Center’s Pass Over and Pipeline). Joining Hill and Smallwood are ensemble member and original cast member Francis Guinan and celebrated Chicago actor Jacqueline Williams.

Previews begin July 5, 2019, and the production runs through August 25, 2019, in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Opening night is Sunday, July 14, at 6:00 p.m. Single tickets ($20-$96) available through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or

In 1982, Steppenwolf exploded onto the American Theatre scene with its now legendary production of Sam Shepard’s True West. This American classic traces the volatile relationship of Austin and Lee, estranged brothers who find themselves holed up together in their mother’s well-kept suburban house with a typewriter, a set of golf clubs and the undeniable call of the desert. In its first Steppenwolf revival, a new generation of artists take on Shepard’s masterpiece.

Steppenwolf’s original production of True West opened in 1982 with then fairly unknown actors Jeff Perry (Austin) and John Malkovich (Lee) playing the leads, alongside ensemble members Francis Guinan and Laurie Metcalf, directed by Gary Sinise. With Sam Shepard’s approval, Steppenwolf’s production transferred to Off-Broadway, where it opened at Cherry Lane Theatre in October 1982 with Gary Sinise taking on the role of ‘Austin.’ It closed on August 4, 1984, after 762 performances. A television movie of the stage play, featuring Sinise and Malkovich, aired on the PBS series “American Playhouse” in January 1984.

Cast Bios: Francis Guinan (Saul Kimmer) is a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble. He has appeared in more than 30 Steppenwolf productions.

Jon Michael Hill (Austin) has been a Steppenwolf ensemble member since 2007 and was last seen on Steppenwolf’s stage as Moses in Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, which was filmed by Spike Lee and released by Amazon Studios. Hill reprised the role of Moses in the Lincoln Center Theater production the following year.

Namir Smallwood (Lee) joined the Steppenwolf ensemble in March 2017, where he has been seen in Aziza Barnes’ BLKS, Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ Monster, Christina Anderson’s Man In Love and The Hot L Baltimore.

Jacqueline Williams’ (Mom) Steppenwolf credits include: Familiar, The Christians, Airline Highway, Head of Passes (also at Mark Taper opposite Phylicia Rashad), Hot L Baltimore, Brother Sister Plays, and others.  Goodman: includes Father Comes Home from the Wars, Pullman Porter Blues (some performances), and stop.reset, among others. She toured with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg. She is a multi-award winner and has worked and toured extensively and has had numerous  TV/film roles, including a recurring Mrs. Brown on The Chi, Officer Becerra on Chicago Fire/PD/Med, Warden Myers on Empire, Prison Break, Heartlock, The Break Up, The Lake House.

Director Bio

Randall Arney has been a theater professional for more than 30 years and ensemble member and former artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre where his directing credits include Slowgirl, The Seafarer, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Death and the Maiden, and Curse of the Starving Class, among others. Mr. Arney’s acting credits with Steppenwolf include Born Yesterday, Ghost in the Machine, The Homecoming, Frank’s Wild Years, You Can’t Take It with You, and Fool for Love, among others.

By Precinct Reporter News

Ford Theatres presents visionary vocalist and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello who performs songs from her GRAMMY®-nominated album Ventriloquism, as well as a selection of her favorites, on Saturday, July 13 at 8:00 pm as part of its IGNITE @ the FORD! series.

Musically, Ventriloquism has the hallmarks of all of Ndegeocello’s work — lush and investigative, subversive and sublime. As always, she pays tribute to her diverse influences and in these cover songs, listeners hear them layered over one another. The reimagining deconstructs and comments on the narrow expectation of sound and structure for black artists and black music, while offering a musical refuge during these uncertain times. Ventriloquism is released 25 years after her GRAMMY®-nominated debut album Plantation Lullabies.

In awarding Ndegeocello the 2019 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts prize for music, Vijay Iyer called her, “a rare constellation in the artistic firmament, whose generosity of spirit defies the confines of genre and whose work dwells in both darkness and deliverance.”

Chuck Arnold in The New York Post said of Ventriloquism, “She arrived at the concept for the LP — on which she radically reinvents such classics as Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’ and George Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog’ — during a difficult period about two and a half years ago when her father, saxophonist Jacques Johnson, passed away . . . this is a record about, and full of, transformation. These are well-loved songs that Ndegeocello loves a little bit more, singing them with a rich, warm tone (she’s never sounded better) and backed by a band who know how to anticipate every bob and weave she might make. It’s one of her best.”

Ndegeocello herself said, “I would go to my parents’ house, and my mother’s car radio only played the oldies station.  So I just was listening to all the songs I grew up with. I’d be awash in memories . . . those are all the songs I would listen to at my parents’ house to make me feel better.”

She said a Billboard interview, “The covers idea was more so the result of a very intense year I experienced with the death of a parent and the dementia of another. And it was nice to just sit with tunes that you love and you know in and out in an emotional way. It was cathartic for me to try to give them another life, these songs.”

Charlotte Richardson Andrews said in The Guardian said, “These are bold offerings – creative, unpredictable and rich with Ndegeocello’s sensual contralto. There is intention here, a subtle, transformative magic . . . there’s no denying the originality on offer here, from this rightly revered music game outlier.”

Brad Nelson of Pitchfork said, “A cover is an act of scholarship, an act of criticism, an act of intimacy. An act of love. Tackling a range of R&B radio hits from the 1980s and 1990s, Meshell Ndegeocello treats the practice of covering another’s songs as an act of intimacy and empathy. She doesn’t perform these songs as much as she renovates them from surface to center, peeling away wallpaper, pushing furniture around, crumpling and discarding any unnecessary dimensional space until she figures out what kind of room the song is.”

Thomas Inskeep in Spin said, “Prince’s ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’ is the centerpiece of the album, a fitting tribute as we approach the second anniversary of his death. Ndegeocello’s take is . . . hushed, almost religious — you know the line in ‘Maria,’ from West Side Story, ‘Say it soft, and it’s almost like praying’? That’s the impact here: it sounds like a prayer to and for Prince.”

Ventriloquism is a place, like its process, to take refuge from one storm too many. “The year around the recording of this album was so disorienting and dispiriting for me personally and for so many people I know and spoke to all the time,” she said. “I looked for a way to make something that was light while things around me were so dark, a musical place to go that reminded me of another, brighter time.”

“Early on in my career, I was told to make the same kind of album again and again, and when I didn’t do that, I lost support. There isn’t much diversity within genres, which are ghettoizing themselves, and I liked the idea of turning hits I loved into something even just a little less familiar or formulaic. It was an opportunity to pay a new kind of tribute.”

This event is part of IGNITE @ the FORD!, a series comprised of world-renowned contemporary artists whose work is thought provoking and reflects the world in which we live. Proceeds from IGNITE @ the FORD! events benefit the Ford Theatre Foundation. Tickets are available online at and by phone (323) 461-3673. Ford Theatres is located at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood, CA 90068.

This article originally appeared in the Precinct Reporter Group News

By The Charleston Chronicle

The Gibbes Museum of Art have announced that renowned artist Fred Wilson will be the keynote speaker at the museum’s annual  Distinguished Lecture Series, taking place at Charleston Music Hall on Wednesday, November 13.

“The Gibbes does not tell Charleston’s story from a singular point-of-view, but rather through a series of artistic lenses and diverse perspectives,” says Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes Museum of Art. “We are thrilled to be hosting Fred Wilson for this lecture as someone who challenges assumptions of history, culture, race and conventions of display with his work. We are honored to be introducing Wilson to Charleston ahead of his exhibition that will be on display at the Gibbes next year.”

Since his groundbreaking and historically significant exhibition Mining the Museum (1992) at the Maryland Historical Society, Wilson continues to use cultural products to address issues of racism and erasure as the subject of many solo exhibitions. The artist’s most recent body of work, an exhibition entitled Afro Kismet, was originally produced for the Istanbul Biennial in the Fall of 2017 and subsequently shown in New York and Los Angeles. Afro Kismet will open at the Gibbes Museum of Art in the Spring of 2020.

Wilson’s many accolades include the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” Grant (1999); the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture (2006); the Alain Locke Award from The Friends of African and African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts (2013); a Lifetime Achievement Award, Howard University, Washington, D.C. (2017); the Ford Foundation’s, The Art of Change Award (2017-18); and an honor by The Black Alumni of Pratt Institute during their 2017 Celebration of the Creative Spirit. Wilson was recently named the 2019 recipient of Brandeis University’s Creative Arts Award and is a trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Event Details: 

  • Wednesday, November 13, 2019
  • Doors: 5:30 PM / Show: 6:30 PM
  • Charleston Music Hall, 37 John Street, Charleston, S.C. 29403
  • $60 – Tier 1 ($50 for Members) | $40 – Tier 2 | $15 – Student/Faculty

Event sponsors included former Gibbes board member and philanthropist Esther Ferguson, Bank of America, Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust, Lynch Cracraft Wealth Management of Raymond James and the City of Charleston.

Tickets will be for sale beginning June 21, 2019. Members will have access to a presale on June 17, 2019. For information on becoming a member, visit To purchase tickets, visit Charleston Music Hall’s website at or call the box office Monday-Thursday from 12pm-6pm or Friday from 10am-6pm at 843-853-2252.

This article originally appeared in the Charleston Chronicle.


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