THE WOMEN OF GEE’S BEND

THE HISTORY

They are the descendants of slaves. 

Unknown just a few years ago, they are celebrities now. Dozens of women from a poor, isolated, almost-forgotten black American community whose quilting, now recognized as a remarkable artistic achievement, has propelled them to national acclaim. A very impoverished community in Alabama, Gee’s Bend lies at the edge of the Black Belt in Wilcox County, about 30 miles southwest of Selma.

They are the women of Gee’s Bend, famous for their beautiful, modernistic, abstract quilts. I was fortunate enough to meet them at the premiere of their quilt show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, in 2002. In addition to viewing their outstanding quilts, I was able to see them, hug them, and be treated to soul-stirring renditions of their gospel singing. I was blown away by their presence, their humility, their tranquility in all the fuss that we admirers gave them. (Even got to see Jane Fonda.)

Gee’s Bend is named after a planter, Joseph Gee, who was the first white man to stake a claim there in the early 1800s. The Gee family sold the plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845. Most of the approximately 750 people who live in Gee’s Bend today are descendants of slaves on the former Pettway plantation.  The majority of residents bear the surnames of the white people who once owned their forebears — Pettway, Young, Bendolph.

Isolated geographically, the women in the community created quilts from whatever materials were available, in patterns of their own imaginative design. Over the past few years, Gee’s Bend has been in the spotlight with a touring exhibit of quilts. The artisans behind the quilts, women from Gee’s Bend, have won critical acclaim from New York to Houston.

Annie pettway.jpg
Annie Pettway Bendolph carrying water in Gee’s Bend, Alabama – April 1937. (Photographed by Arthur Rothstein).

The women of Gee’s Bend still gather each weekday morning to stitch the abstract patterns that first caught the eye of the art world — a quilting tradition that resonates deeply with aspects of modernist abstraction.  Practically everyone in Gee’s Bend is descended from slaves; the quiltmakers are part of an unbroken tradition of generations of quilters there;  their quilts were pieced together from scraps of fertilizer sacks, shirttails, worn-out overalls, tobacco pouches, and stuffed with the cotton they’d picked in the fields.  Somehow, incredibly, the hurried work of their hands turned into hundreds of bold, abstract, idiosyncratic, and joyous quilts that critics have compared to the work of Matisse, Mondrian, and Rothko. 

Now their quilts have hung in major museums around the country, including New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art; The New York Times called them ”some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” They’ve gone to Washington, and Houston, even Kazakhstan and Armenia.  A host of retail products is on the market, inspired by their work.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend have even made it on to US postage stamps.  

But, it has not been an easy road for the women of Gee’s Bend.

Stories — of racial politics, of poverty, of hard times, of faith — are close to the surface, and spoken of frequently, especially now that outsiders are interested and ask. 

There’s the story of the ferry, for one. Decades ago there was a ferry that went from Gee’s Bend to the white town of Camden, on the far side of the Alabama River, so that Benders could buy their groceries and borrow money.

But in 1965, the service was cut off when the people of Gee’s Bend crossed over to vote and participated in civil-rights marches. After that they had to drive the 56 miles around the river to Camden, assuming they had a car, which few did. 

Arlonzia Pettway’s quilt stories reach back the furthest. Ms. Pettway is one of four women who meet several mornings a week at a senior center to make quilts, and also to sing — sacred hymns and spirituals that were improvised decades ago on plantations and got passed along. 

They make the quilts much the same way they always have, except now they stuff the insides with batting from Wal-Mart in Selma, not cotton from the gin mill. Quilters make their own designs, and hand-stitch the layers together, stretching the quilt over a large rectangle of wood supported by two crude sawhorses. With well-used nails, one of the women hammers the edges of the quilt into the wood to hold it tight.

A tall, regal-looking woman born in 1923, Arlonzia Pettway has a story that seems so sorrowful even Mary Lee Bendolph has said, ”When she first started telling me that, I thought she was wrong.”  (1)

Ms. Pettway said quilting started in her family with her great grandmother Dinah, who was born in Africa and was captured at 14 — she was lured onto a slave ship, which was decorated with red ribbons and red lights because ”they thought African people liked the color red.” The ship landed in Mobile in 1859.

”She was told she was bought for a price. She cost one dime,” Ms. Pettway said. ”One ten-cents.” (1)

Ms. Pettway was 7 when her great grandmother died, but she remembers Dinah’s stories about making quilts in secret from torn-up old clothes, crouching in ditches with tree brush over her. ”They was in slavery,” says Ms. Pettway. ”They worked all day, then they’d go under the pile of brushes, and set the log down to sit on and make a quilt. The slave masters didn’t allow them to piece a quilt. They didn’t want them to do nothing, they didn’t want them to learn how to write, they didn’t want them to have no beautiful quilts, they didn’t want them to have no correct language. That’s what she told me.” (1)

Everyone seems to agree: Life changed in Gee’s Bend because of Annie Mae Young’s quilt, the one made out of torn-up pieces of denim work pants. 

Mary Lee Bendolph experiences the world differently, too. ”I go places I used to couldn’t go,” she says.

”Everything just opened up for us, even Camden,” her daughter Essie adds, speaking of the town across the river where years ago her mother watched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. brazenly drink from the ”whites only” fountain in the courthouse. (1)

In 1998, a man named Bill Arnett happened to see a photograph of it in a book about black American quilters published in 1996; the quilt — with a vividly colored center medallion made of strips of corduroy — was unceremoniously draped over a woodpile where Ms. Young, standing in the foreground, was airing it out.  For 20 years, he’d traveled around the South scouting art made by unknown black American visual artists. In 1996, he started working on a two-volume set of books on the subject, ”Souls Grown Deep.” It was published by Tinwood Books, which Arnett cofounded with Jane Fonda, a financial partner.

The quilt was unlike anything Arnett had ever seen, and he lost no time tracking Ms. Young down. ”I had no idea when I went to see Annie Mae’s quilt that it would open up what it did,” he says.  (1)

It opened up a world of women who had been making quilts most of their lives and ”didn’t think anyone in the world would appreciate what they were doing,” says Arnett, who now works with his four sons on Atlanta-based Tinwood ventures, including organizing quilt exhibitions and trips and overseeing retail projects. Ms. Young introduced him to other Gee’s Bend women, who showed him their own quilts, hauling them out of storage rooms and bedrooms where they’d kept them between the springs and mattresses to make their beds softer.

The more quilts he saw, the more quilters he met, and he began to understand the significance of the fact that quiltmaking in Gee’s Bend had remained more or less intact over nearly two centuries with just a few mutations. ”It became obvious that we’d stumbled upon one of the great art-producing communities that I’m aware of,” Arnett says.

A quilt by Lucy Marie Mingo.
Debbie Elliott, NPR

A quilt by Lucy Marie Mingo.

 

At first, he thought he would write a book about the quilts, but the plan got more ambitious after he consulted Jane Livingstone and John Beardsley, art historians who had written for his ”Souls Grown Deep” books. Beardsley, a senior lecturer at Harvard Design School, recalls being dazzled by them. ”They were thematically distinct, they were geographically distinct, they had a kind of coherence, and the quilts were just plain amazing,” he says.

Eventually Livingstone and Beardsley curated the show, which appeared first at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 2002 and has been to eight US cities. The exhibition continues to draw huge crowds, including an uncommon mix of black American and white visitors, and ”people with berets and black sweaters,” says Paul Arnett, coauthor, with his father Bill, of two books about Gee’s Bend.

Even more unexpected is that the success of the show has inspired a renaissance of quiltmaking in Gee’s Bend. When Bill Arnett first visited Gee’s Bend, it was a dying art. Only five or six women were still making quilts, and few were making more than two or three a year.

”I can tell you a lot of the people in Gee’s Bend was slowly dying and had nothing in their life to look forward to,” says Rubin Bendolph, a Huntsville engineer who grew up in Gee’s Bend. He’s the son of Mary Lee and the sister of Essie Bendolph Pettway, another quiltmaker.

”Quilting got reenergized, after so many of the women saw the way they were being received,” says another of Bill’s sons, Matt Arnett, who acts as a liaison for the Atlanta-based Tinwood organization between the Gee’s Bend community and the art world. Currently, the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective, consisting of about 50 quilters, is marketing the women’s quilts on their website, for an average price of $3,000. Meanwhile, the exhibition has fueled a veritable Gee’s Bend industry — rugs, bedding, stationery. Half of the money from the sale of quilts sold by the collective goes to the quilter who made it; the other half is divided among its members. The quilters also receive royalties from the licensed products.

All of this has helped improve the material life of many of the quilters. Loretta Pettway and Arlonzia Pettway have added on to their homes. Mary Lee Bendolph has renovated a guest house next to hers, where she puts up visitors. The Ye Shall Know the Truth Baptist Church is called by some ”the church that quilts built,” because of all the money that quilters contributed to erect it.

Not that Gee’s Bend is thriving economically. Quiltmaking hasn’t created jobs. While some of the quilters may not need to buy their groceries on credit anymore, their grandchildren are still bused 100 miles round trip to the middle school and high school because the school in Gee’s Bend was closed when desegregation came. There are still no health-care services to speak of in Gee’s Bend; you have to drive more than 50 miles to a dentist or doctor or pharmacy.  The Gee’s Bend women go around the country and are treated like movie stars, and then they come back and kind of fade into the woodwork.

Something has changed for the women, though.

”The quilts have made a difference in the way I see myself getting up in the world,” says Arlonzia Pettway.  (1)

She woke up one morning in February and for the first time in her life wrote a poem. It begins:

 ARLONZIA PETTAWAY’S POEM

The Path
Never make a path somebody else made.
First you make your own path.
Great Grandmama Dinah walked this path
With her quilt pieces and her thimble and a needle in her hand.
But she never reached the intersection.
She passed on.

Grandmama Sally, her daughter,
Stepped in her footsteps.
Travelled the path so many miles
With her quilt pieces and her thimble and a needle in her hand.
But she never reached the intersection.
She passed on.

Missouri Pettway, my mama,
She stepped into the same path,
Travelled the path so many miles
With her quilt pieces and her thimble and a needle in her hand.
But she never reached the intersection.
She passed on.

Who am I? I’m Arlonzia Pettway, her daughter.
I stepped into the path.
And Mary Lee Bendolph, Nettie Young, Annie Mae Young, Lucy Mingo
And other quilters of Gee’s Bend
We stepped on the path
We’ve travelled the path
Travelled, travelled, travelled the path.

We heard a noise,
We were near the intersection
We heard the cars a-roaring
Cars going north, south, east, and west.
No one asked us
“Where are you going?” or “Who are you?”

I looked again. I saw the Arnetts coming.
They came to us and said, “Where are you going?” and “What are you looking
for?”
I said, “We’re looking for the house of joy and the house of peace and the house of love.”
They said to us, “Follow us as we follow God, and we’ll take you there.” So they did.
They took us to the house of joy, the house of peace, and the house of love.
And we are very happy for them.

- Arlonzia Pettway, February, 2005

 The women of Gee’s Bend go to places they have never been to, places they probably never could have gone to, especially in the past. So much has opened up for these ladies, so much of the hated past they have triumphed over, but, still so much more they want to do in the precious time they have left in their lives. Many of the women through the years were close to giving upon continuing their unique quilting, but, with the interests of new-comers to the world of Gee’s Bend, and with the revival of the continuance of quilt-making of the younger generation of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, there is hope that this beautiful type of quilts will not die out with the passing of the older women who made these quilts so famous. There is even talk of bringing tourists to Gee’s Bend.

Mary Lee Bendolph moves fast these days, with a sense of urgency, because there is so much to do.

Soon it’s time for noonday prayer at the church, and that evening there’s a meeting she’s invited to, with some other quilters — in Camden – to talk with people from the business community about ways to bring tourists into Wilcox County.

Quite a long journey from a little unknown community in Alabama, a group of women who thought they were only just making quilts for comfort, for warmth, for their families, for their eyes only.

Gee's Bend quilting bee.jpg
The Women of Gee’s Bend work on a quilt during the 2005 ONB Magic City Art Connection in Birmingham, Alabama’s Linn Park.

The Women of Gee’s Bend have even been put on U.S. commemorative postage stamps, commissioned for sale on August 26, 2006, issued at the American Philatelic Society’s (APS) annual convention and philatelic exhibition. These stamps are the sixth in the American Treasures Series, and feature the beautiful ingenuity, style, flair, and improvisational technique of the Gee’s Bend quilters.

The Stamps

Gee's Bend Quilt StampsQuilts of Gee’s Bend Stamps

Top row, left
“Housetop” variation by Mary Lee Bendolph (1935- ); 1998.
Cotton, corduroy, twill, assorted polyesters.
72 x 76 inches

Top row, right
“Chinese Coins” variation by Arlonzia Pettway (1923- ); circa 1965.
Corduroy, denim, cotton twill.
88 x 73 inches

Second row, left
“Roman Stripes” variation (local name: “Crazy” quilt) by Loretta
Pettway (1942- ); 1970.
Cotton twill, denim, cotton/polyester blend, synthetic knit.
86 x 70 inches

Second row, right
Medallion with checkerboard center by Patty Ann Williams (1898-1972); 1960s.
Cotton (corduroy and twill) and polyester knit.
84 x 71 inches

Third row, left
“Housetop”-four-block “Half-Log Cabin” variation by Lottie Mooney (1908-1992);
circa 1940.
Cotton and rayon.
88 x 73 inches

Third row, right
Bars and string-pieced columns by Jessie T. Pettway (1929- ); circa 1950.
Cotton.
95 x 76 inches

Fourth row, left
“Nine Patch” by Ruth P. Mosely (1928- ); circa 1955.
Cotton and corduroy.
93 x 77 inches

Fourth row, right
Medallion by Loretta Pettway (1942- ); circa 1960.
Synthetic knit and cotton sacking material.
87 x 70 inches

Fifth row, left
“Pig in a Pen” medallion by Minnie Sue Coleman (1926- ); circa 1970.
Polyester knit and double knit.
61 x 82 inches

Fifth row, right
Blocks and strips by Annie Mae Young (1928- ); circa 1970.
Cotton, polyester, synthetic blends.
83 x 80 inches

APPROPRIATION AND COMMODIFICATION

 

As much as they have received recognition for their artful, modernistic quilts, the women of Gee’s Bend have not been without their trials and tribulations. As to be expected, the appropriation of any rural type of art is to be expected, especially in the case of the owners of the artwork not receiving the royalties they are due for their work. Granted, none of this is terribly surprising, given the longtime American propensity to convert meaningful cultural experiences into meaningful retail ones, be they Renoir paperweights or Gauguin magnets.  But you have to wonder has this form of appropriation gone too far, especially in the case of the women of Gee’s Bend concerning their quilts. Given the history of the quilts — made by impoverished descendents of slaves — is there something a bit incongruous about the profitability factor here? When does healthy entrepreneurship become exploitation? Especially when the women themselves are claiming fraud by those using the images of their quilts in merchandise that is sold in many stores around the country, and the women are not receiving just compensation for the commercial use of their quilts in products that may wind up in the form of mass-produced bedspreads, cups, plates—or even the ubiquitous umbrella? People who use the images and likenesses of these quilts must be sensitive to the authentic, uncompromised genuiness of these quilts, and not to be lost in all of this in no way should these ladies be denied any royalties or monetary compensation for the use of their quilts in any mass-produced merchandise. The following articles attest to the fact that not all people have the women of Gee’s Bend’s best interests at heart:

 

“Gee’s Bend Quilt Show Promoters Sued”

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

BEN RAINES

The Press-Register

MOBILE – Lucinda Pettway Franklin has filed suit against the Arnett family, promoters of the nationally recognized Gee’s Bend quilt shows, charging that the Arnetts stole the two oldest quilts known to come from Gee’s Bend.

The quilts, more than 100 years old, were made by Franklin’s great-grandmother, Sally Pettway, from worn-out slave clothes and bits of fine fabric cast off from Pettway’s masters while she was still a slave.

The Gee’s Bend quilts, produced by generations of women living in that isolated Black Belt community in central Alabama, captured the imagination of the art world when they were first shown in 2002, seducing viewers with eye-popping colors and a dancing geometry akin to the work of modern painting masters.

Matt Arnett, who Franklin said took the quilts from her home, declined to comment for this story when reached by telephone and referred questions to Gary Coulter, one of the family’s lawyers.

Coulter, already representing the Arnetts in two other suits filed by Gee’s Bend quilters in recent weeks, described the three complaints as “frivolous” and refused to say whether the Arnetts still had possession of Franklin’s quilts.

“We think we can completely justify all actions the Arnetts have taken, and there will be no liability by the Arnetts for anything they have done,” Coulter said.

The suit was filed last week in federal court in Mobile and will likely be heard in Selma.

The Arnetts promoted quilt exhibits and signed lucrative licensing agreements that allowed numerous companies to use the quilt images on everything from TV trays and desk lamps to ladies’ socks and credit cards.

The family members are familiar figures in the world of exclusive art galleries, and have been accused by various Alabama folk artists, art dealers and museum officials of taking financial advantage of the artists they represent.

Franklin, who grew up in Gee’s Bend and is now an insurance agent in Mobile, is related to many of the quilters whose work was celebrated in the first museum shows and books about the quilts. She seeks the return of her quilts and “punitive damages for the conversion of priceless pieces of art.”

Franklin said Matt Arnett came to her home in Mobile and asked to borrow the quilts for one month so they could be photographed and included in a book about quilts. She remembered he became very excited when he saw the quilts for the first time.

That was two years ago. Since that time, Franklin said, Arnett has told her the quilts were destroyed in a fire, accidentally thrown away, ruined in a flood, lost or on his desk ready to be mailed to her.

The quilts are thought to be worth as much as $100,000 apiece.

© 2007 The Birmingham News.

 

“Gee’s Bend Quilts Delivered to Lawyers”

Thursday, June 28, 2007

MICHAEL HUEBNER

News staff writer

Three quilts sought in a lawsuit against three Atlanta art collectors were delivered to lawyers for a Gee’s Bend quilter Wednesday in Birmingham.

The action follows a suit filed last Thursday by Lucinda Pettway Franklin of Mobile, who said in the suit that William, Paul and Matt Arnett refused to return the quilts.

“They sent what appears to be three quilts, accompanied by a letter,” said Kira Fonteneau, who represents Franklin. “We do not know at this point whether they are the quilts in question, so we will have our client identify them. We also are not sure whether they have been damaged. We need to make sure that what has been given to her is exactly what she gave to them and in the same quality that it was when she turned it over.”

The suit, filed in Mobile’s Federal Court, also names Atlanta-based Tinwood Ventures as a defendant. It says that two of the quilts were made by Franklin’s great-grandmother, Sally Miller, and that they are more than 100 years old, are “priceless” and “far exceed the sum of $75,000 each.”

The defendants’ attorneys – Greg Hawley of Birmingham and Gary Coulter from Athens, Ga. – countered that three appraisals from Georgia and California show the quilts were made in the 1950s and 1960s and worth $100-$450. Sally Miller died in 1943.

In a prepared statement, Hawley and Coulter said they contacted Franklin in April about returning the quilts.

“Unfortunately, last Thursday, on the same day Matt Arnett e-mailed Ms. Franklin to arrange a weekend meeting to return the quilts, Ms. Franklin had already filed her lawsuit,” Coulter said.

Hawley called Franklin’s suit “sensational and outrageous.”

“The allegations are about their age, their creation and their value. We hope the court can quickly put an end to it.”

Franklin lent the quilts to Matt Arnett in 2004, according to documents provided by Hawley and Coulter. They said Arnett photographed the quilts and took them to Atlanta for appraisal and safekeeping.

Hawley said that Franklin’s lawsuit has undermined the integrity of Gee’s Bend quilts, which have been shown in galleries and museums nationwide, pictured on U.S. postage stamps and featured in an Emmy-winning PBS documentary.

“The ultimate losers are the women of Gee’s Bend who create these quilts,” Hawley said. “When the integrity is called into question, art galleries are less likely to represent the women and their quilts. The value of these art forms could decline and the demand for them diminish.”

Mary McCarthy of Gee’s Bend, who was with Matt Arnett when Franklin lent him the quilts, believes the lawsuit is frivolous.

“I’ve lived there 17 years,” McCarthy said. “These people are like my second mothers and grandmothers. … It saddens me.”

Two other lawsuits against the Arnetts and Tinwood Ventures are pending. One was filed by quilter Annie Mae Young for falsely claming intellectual property rights. The other, by quilter Loretta Pettway, claims “gross exploitation.”

© 2007 The Birmingham News.

It is one thing to bring to people’s knowledge the beauty of these wonderful quilts and all the life-long work these ladies have put into them. But, the appropriation of these ladies work and the greed that can and has happened to them is just another story of the usurping of black people’s work and the richies of others who stand to gain more in the end. Many of these quilts are more than 150-200 years old, made from the cast-off patches of the clothes of many ex-enslaved relatives of the women of Gee’s Bend. The court case is still pending, and I wish these lovely ladies Godspeed in their receiving justice. Too much has been taken from black America, and with what is happening to the Women of Gee’s Bend, this is just another form of callous disregard for the history and cultural gifts that have been time and time again stolen from black America.

LINKS:

http://www.quiltsofgeesbend.com/quiltmakers/

http://www.npr.com/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4184856

http://www.mfah.org/main.asp?target=ehibition&par1=1&par2=1&par3=240

REFERENCES:

1.  “With These Hands:  Stitches of History”, by Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 2005.

2.  “Gee’s Bend:  The Women and Their Quilts”, by William Arnett, Paul Arnett and Jane Livingston, Tinwood Books, 2002.

Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts by John Beardsley, William Arnett, Paul Arnett, and Jane Livingston (Hardcover – Aug 2002)
5.0 out of 5 stars (4)

 

3.  “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend:  Masterpieces From a Lost Place”,  by William Arnett, Alvia Wardlaw, Jane Livingston and John Beardsley,  Tinwood Books, 2002.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend: Masterpieces from a Lost Place by William Arnett, Alvia Wardlaw, Jane Livingston, and John Beardsley (Hardcover – Sep 23, 2002)
4.8 out of 5 stars (24)
 
RELATED LINKS:
 
 
 

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Here is an update on the quilt lawsuit:

In 2007 two members of the Gee’s Bend quilting community filed lawsuits in US Federal Court in Selma, Alabama. The suit filed by Annie Mae Young alleged that Tinwood Ventures and art dealers William, Matt, and Paul Arnett falsely claim to own the intellectual property rights to quilts made in Gee’s Bend before 1984, including her work. They also improperly used her name and image to promote sales, the lawsuit alleges. The suit filed by Loretta Pettway, claims “gross exploitation” at the hands of the Arnetts and Tinwood Ventures. Both suits also list as defendants Kathy Ireland Worldwide who have licensed the designs from some of the famous quilts from Tinwood and the Arnetts for use in Kathy Ireland products.

Kathy Ireland Worldwide defends their handling of the Gee’s Bend quilter’s royalties in a statement on their website:

Our agreement assures us that the quilter’s representatives are the proper place to send all quilt related earnings. This week a careful review of our files indicates that Kathy Ireland Worldwide has paid more to these representatives than our company has earned from the quilts project.

Other members of the quilters group are unhappy with the lawsuits and felt they are an attempt of some members to go out out on their own.

The lawsuit was settled out of court in August 2008.

SOURCE:  Johnson, Bob (08-25-2008). “Suits brought by rural Alabama quilters resolved“, Associated Press

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “THE WOMEN OF GEE’S BEND

  1. Pingback: University Update - Newt Gingrich - THE WOMEN OF GEE’S BEND

  2. Looking at the pictures of the quilters, I was happy to see some younger women there, and to know that the art is being passed on to the next generation. Thank you for this article–I’d never heard of them before.

  3. shamaca pettaway

    Proud to be a distant relative of these ladies.

  4. Thank you for writing this all up – and including the photos . Quilts made exactly to a pattern with fabric bought as prescribed can be pretty, but the quilts of Gees Bend are exciting and fresh and real. (“Never make a path somebody else made.”)

  5. Pingback: r.r. alder

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