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Mary Lee Bendolph

by Synatra Smith, Ph.D. on 2021-05-27T12:00:00-04:00 in Archives, Black Artists | 0 Comments

African American patchwork quilter Mary Lee Bendolph (née Mosely) was born in 1935 in the historically Black town of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, which is well known for its network of quilting artists. Girls and young women gained their skills through informal apprenticeships in an intergenerational setting. Quilting was traditionally a communal activity for the women in Gee’s Bend, and Bendolph learned the skill from her mother, aunts, older sister, and other women in her life. Bendolph constructed her first quilt at the age of twelve:  “We sat down to quilt that quilt out. It was me; mama; my oldest sister, Lillie Mae; my next sister Elizabeth.”[1] She passed quilting along to her daughter Essie Bendolph Pettway; her daughter-in-law, Louisiana Bendolph, is also a celebrated quilter.[2]

Bendolph’s artistry has been compared to that of Henri Matisse and Paul Klee, based on her use of geometry and color, and in fact she has translated some of her quilt designs to works on paper.[3] She insists on using upcycled materials rather than buying new fabric and creates her quilts using strips of old clothing formed into geometric shapes. “Old clothes carry something with them,” she argues. “You can feel the presence of the person who used to wear them. It has a spirit in them.”[4] Bendolph views her artwork in functional terms since she and the women in her community constructed quilts to keep warm. At the same time, Paul Arnett explains her quilting as “a kind of ongoing visual conversation—with ancestors and peers in the quilting community of Gee’s Bend, with her own quilts, with the built environment and its interplay with nature.”[5] 


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[1] Arnett 2012, 13; see also Bendolph 2017; Cassel 2019; Cubbs 2006.

[2] Bendolph 2017; Cassel Oliver 2019; Cubbs 2006.

[3] Cassel Oliver 2019.

[4] Cubbs 2006, 14.

[5] Arnett 2012, 20.



Arnett, Paul. 2012. “Complementary: Mary Lee Bendolph and Thornton Dial, Gee’s Bend and Bessemer.” In Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. Edited by Mark Scala. Nashville: Center for the Visual Arts.


Bendolph, Mary Lee. 2017. “Gee’s Bend: A Reproductive Justice Quilt Story from the South.” In Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundations, Theory, Practice, and Critique. Edited by Loretta J. Ross, Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples, and Pamela Bridgewater Toure. New York: Feminist Press.


Cassel Oliver, Valerie. 2019. “Mary Lee Bendolph.” In Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South. Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Cubbs, Joanne. 2006. “The Life and Art of Mary Lee Bendolph.” In Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend Quilts, and Beyond. Edited by Paul Arnett and Eugene W. Metcalf Jr. Atlanta: Tinwood Books.

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