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10/31/2012 / accfiber

Gee’s Bend

“We think of inheriting as land or something, not things that people teach you. We came from cotton fields, we came through hard times, and we look back and see what all these people before us have done. They brought us here, and to say thank you is not enough.” -Louisiana Pettway Bendolph

Loisiana Pettway Bendolph Crazy Quilt, c. 2005. Cotton. 68 x 53 inches.

Tucked away in a bend in the Alabama River, surrounded on three sides by water is Boykin, Alabama, population 275. There is one road in and out of town, which is located in one of the poorest counties in the state. Boykin, better known as Gee’s Bend, gave rise to what one New York Times critic called “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced”. Given the isolation of this region, is it any surprise?

Pettway family, Gee’s Bend, 1937. Photo by Farm Security Administration.

After the Civil War, former slaves continued working the fields of Gee’s Bend as tenant farmers, establishing their own close-knit community. The quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend possess a strong innate sense of design built on the visual language of their African American culture, which in turn is informed by African traditions.

Loretta Pettway, born 1942. Medallion, ca. 1960, synthetic knit and cotton sacking material, 87 x 70 inches.

In 1966, a civil rights worker and priest helped the women of Gee’s Bend establish the Freedom Quilting Bee, whose handiwork can be seen below. After Martin Luther King Jr. paid a visit to the region, Gee’s Bend residents attempted to cross the river via ferry to march for their voting rights. They were arrested and ferry services were cut off, leaving the community even more isolated than before. (Services were not restored until 2006.)

Quilts on the line, Freedom Quilting Bee Festival.

Below is Irene Williams’s response to this experience.

Irene Williams born 1920 “Housetop”, 1975.

The women of Gee’s Bend use primarily scrap and recycled fabrics for their quilts. Most of the materials incorporated into these pieces hold significance to their maker, and oftentimes the meaning behind them can only be guessed at by the viewer. In the case of Missouri Pettway’s Blocks and Strips quilt (below), created in 1942, the quilt is composed of deconstructed clothing that belonged to her recently deceased husband. The quilt functions as a eulogy to Pettway’s beloved; it is a memory personified, a tribute to a person made from his most basic possessions: his work clothes. The patina of age and use lent to these artifacts by their wearer further underscore their significance: no other individual could have broken in those jeans in precisely the same way. In this regard, the quilt can be viewed as a collaboration between Pettway and the deceased.

Missouri Pettway, 1902-1981. Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt, 1942, cotton, corduroy, cotton sacking material, 90 x 69 inches.

Nearly 30 years later and in strong contrast to the piece above, Missouri Pettway made this quilt:

Missouri Pettway, 1902-1981. “Path through the Woods” (quiltmaker’s name), 1971, polyester knit, 73 x 69 inches.

It is charming in its asynchronous rhythms, hot pink against heathered grey jostling its way into the striped border. I like to think it is symbolic of Missouri Pettway’s resilience in the face of personal tragedy.

The women of Gee’s Bend took patchwork and quilting traditions and transformed them into a visual language unique to their community. The best-known quilts from Gee’s Bend date from the 1920s to present times, with most created during the mid-50s to mid-70s. During this time, popular patchwork focused heavily on static blocks composed of precisely-sewn, minute pieces of fabric. Quilting was mostly executed by hand, with an emphasis on tiny, evenly-spaced stitches in tight motifs that emphasized the patchwork.

The Gee’s Bend tradition continues with Loretta Bennett, Autumn Lady, 2008 87 x 65 inches.

The women of Gee’s Bend exploded these conventions, taking traditional block patterns, such as the log cabin, and altering the block setting, scale, or even the very rigid construction of the block itself. Quilting stitches are large and uneven, usually forming exuberant flowing lines that complement the bold nature of the patchwork.

Look at the quilting! Annie Mae Young, born 1928. Work-clothes quilt with center medallion of corduroy strips, 1976. Denim, corduroy, synthetic blend, 108 x 77 inches.

In Gee’s Bend, a log cabin block is called ‘housetop’, and looks a distant cousin to the formal log cabin quilts created by quilters outside of the community. Mary Elizabeth Kennedy’s Housetop quilt, created in 1935, is a thrilling example of the Gee’s Bend answer to Depression-era patchwork. Executed mostly in shades of teal and cream, this quilt utilizes nine blocks approximately 20 inches square, arranged in a combination of traditional settings at once to form a strong vertical zig-zag at the left of the composition. While not my favorite quilt, I appreciated Kennedy’s design approach, which predated Abstract Expressionism while being altogether removed from the art scene of the time.

Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, 1911-1991. “Housetop”– “Log Cabin” variation, 1935, cotton, rayon, 84 x 79 inches.

One of the most outstanding examples of a Housetop variation was created by Mary Lee Bendolph in 1998. Composed of a solid palette of black, brown, cream, red, and dusty pink, this quilt is a thrillingly loose interpretation of the log cabin block, to the point of being nearly unrecognizable as such.

Mary Lee Bendolph, born 1935. “Housetop” variation, 1998; quilted by her daughter, Essie bendolph Pettway, in 2001, cotton, corduroy, twill, assorted polyesters, 72 x 76 inches.

The composition is intensely rhythmic and dynamic, consisting of repetitious use of color. Many of the fabrics used in this quilt are polyester double-knit, repurposed from a family member’s unwanted collection of leisure suits. That such outdated garments could be transformed into such a striking work of art speaks to the resourcefulness and talent of these quiltmakers, who make art from make-do.

Loretta Pettway, born 1942. “Housetop,” 1963, cotton twill and synthetic material (men’s clothing), 80 x 74 inches.

Does this call to mind Amish quilts at all?



Leave a Comment
  1. Monya Neba / Oct 31 2012 5:13 am

    A beautiful tradition in cloth. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Monya Neba / Oct 31 2012 5:18 am

    Reblogged this on Line, Form, Colour, Texture and commented:
    Quilts inspired by African tradition. Powerful Modern art…

  3. Micah / Oct 31 2012 10:55 pm

    Fabulous post!


  1. Line, Form, Colour, Texture

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