A Quick Trip
Gee's Bend, Alabama
The women of Gee’s Bend have been making quilts from scraps of cloth and clothing since slavery, through sharecropping, and on into the 20th century. Once discovered for their artistic beauty by William Arnett, an art curator and collector, their lives were changed.
In 2002, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend made their debut at the Museum of fine Arts in Houston, Texas. After they met with a frosty and unforgiving reception to the aesthetics of their quilts, Arnett took their exhibit to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. And, within a few months, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend went from being unknown, then ridiculed, to being made legendary. As one media outlet summarized the New York event: “For once black Americans are admired and lauded for what they have achieved for themselves, not because their artistic gifts have conformed to what is expected of them.”
Anyone who knows me knows I’m from the Northwest, born and raised. But my parents are from Mississippi and Alabama, and thus go my roots. So while on a visit with my cousins we took a 4 hour drive from Jackson, Mississippi to Gees Bend, a rural sleepy hamlet of sorts in Wilcox County, Alabama. Population: less than 150, with a median household income of less than $17K. This is also a place where everyone is either a Bennett or a Pettway, by the ancestral names given by the original slave owners.
While driving there, as we got closer, the internet and cellphone reception was almost non existent. We felt lost even though it was early afternoon when we finally reached a sign for Boykin, AL (Gee’s Bend’s name was changed in 1949).
I was very excited to finally meet the decedents of the original Gee’s Bend slaves and was pleasantly surprised to find they were still making quilts to this day. Upon entering their workshop and signing in, the first thing you notice is the quiet chaos of quilts, fabrics, tables, and sewing machines everywhere…it felt like home!!
Mary Ann Pettway (in the photos) greeted us and gave an account of their rise to stardom and the establishment of their Quilting Collective, to which they are very proud of how it has changed their lives.
Mary Ann was finishing the binding on this stunning purple, black and white quilt.
I wanted to buy it, but it was already claimed for a charity event.
But I could not leave empty handed and added these pieces to my collection…