Sunday, May 11, 2008

Gee’s Bend Quilters Create Art from Scraps of Fabric

Mary Lee Bendolph quilt, 2005, features blocks, strips, strings and half squares

Mary Lee Bendolph quilt, 2005, features blocks, strips, strings and half squares. (The Walters Art Museum)
Women descended from slaves gain fame from boldly patterned quilts By Louise Fenner USINFO Staff Writer.

Washington -- Generations of black women in the tiny, isolated town of Gee's Bend, Alabama, have created quilts with stunningly beautiful geometric designs and colors, but until the late 1990s, the quilts were little known beyond the community.
Most of the 750 residents of Gee’s Bend are descendants of slaves who worked on a local cotton plantation and became sharecroppers and planters after slavery was abolished in 1863. Throughout the decades, the women of the community made quilts from whatever was available to them, using their imagination and fabric cut from worn-out dresses and work clothes, remnants from a corduroy factory, flour and fertilizer sacks, and even scraps of cloth they found by the road. They used leftover lint from a cotton gin as filler. Many worked in the cotton fields during the day and quilted at night.

“Whatever we had, we made the best of it,” says Creola B. Pettway in the documentary “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.”
Loretta Pettway says she used to come home from the fields, do chores and then quilt until two or three in the morning. “I would get tired but I had to do it. I had a family and I had to keep them warm.”

“When we gathered our crop,” says Arlonzia Pettway, “that’s the only pleasure we had was to sit around the quilt and talk and sing.”

Now, the art world has taken notice, and prices for the quilts range from a few hundred dollars to more than $20,000. The quilts have been exhibited in more than a dozen American museums as well as U.S. embassies in Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan. Their images are printed on U.S. postage stamps.
quilter Arlonzia Pettway

Photograph of quilter Arlonzia Pettway from Linda Day Clark's Gee's Bend Series (The Walters Art Museum)
“This is art that deserves to be recognized,” said Bernard Herman, chair of art history at the University of Delaware. “It speaks to something that we lose sight of, which is the presence of art in everyday life.”

In 2007, Herman, who spoke at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where 45 Gee’s Bend quilts were on exhibition, described how some quiltmakers, such as Mary Lee Bendolph, make the entire quilt at home, while others take pieced-together fabric squares to the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective for finishing. Most now purchase their fabrics. The quiltmakers pass on their techniques and the tradition of quiltmaking to their daughters, granddaughters and other girls in the community.

“Quiltmaking is as much about the construction of community and kin networks as it is about learning to make bed coverings,” Herman told USINFO.

“So many things now are mechanized; this is handmade,” said Tosha Grantham, co-curator of the Walters exhibition. “Even if you use a machine to piece the little [fabric] squares together, a lot of people still do all the topstitching by hand.” The women come together as a community to quilt, sing and tell stories, Grantham said, “and that’s also a part of this.”

In The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, Essie Bendolph Pettway, Mary Lee’s daughter, says her brother went to college on earnings from their mother’s quilting. For Essie, quilting is a pastime. Sitting at her sewing machine, she says “I love my quilts when I make them. They be beautiful to me.”

And it is gratifying, she adds, “to think that I did some work that somebody thought was good enough to put on a wall.”

In 2003, about 50 quilters, with the assistance of Tinwood Alliance, a nonprofit foundation supporting African-American vernacular art, formed the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to market their quilts. Proceeds are shared by members of the collective, although some quilters also sell their work independently. Many quiltmakers have made repairs to their homes, bought appliances and donated money to their church with their earnings.

Nonetheless, Gee’s Bend (officially called Boykin, Alabama) remains economically depressed, said Herman. “They don’t just lack money, they lack the basic services.”

One reason has been its isolation. Forty-five miles from Selma, it is bounded on three sides by a bend in the Alabama River. It is an hour’s drive to Camden, the county seat and nearest place for supplies, schools and medical services. In 1962, white local authorities shut down the ferry to Camden to prevent blacks from registering to vote. Most didn’t have cars at the time. For economic reasons, the ferry service was not restored until November 2006.

Despite these circumstances, or perhaps inspired by them, Gee’s Bend quilts are “one of the most remarkable artistic practices in the United States today,” said Herman. “I’ve looked at between 800 and 900 quilts. I’ve never seen two the same.”

“What a great thing it is for [the quiltmakers] to receive this type of critical success and attention at this point in their careers,” after lacking “the material resources many Americans benefit from,” Grantham told USINFO.

“Out of necessity, the women of Gee’s Bend made these really beautiful objects that weren’t necessarily art for them, but were ways to keep warm,” said Grantham. “I think it’s a very triumphant story of perseverance and faith and creativity.”

The exhibition concluded it's run in the summer of 2007, but you may read more about the exhibition of Gee’s Bend quilts, which traveled to seven U.S. cities, on the Web sites of The Walters Art Museum and the Tinwood Alliance. The exhibition was sponsored by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Tinwood Alliance. The Walters exhibition (June 15-August 26, 2007) included a gallery of 25 photos by Baltimore resident Lynda Day Clark taken in Gee’s Bend.

See U.S. Postal Service press release with photos of Gee’s Bend stamps.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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