Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. It is not uncommon to find quilts by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family.
Loretta Pettway's earliest surviving quilts are made of everyday clothing, especially men's work clothes.
Loretta Pettway, b. 1942
"I had to struggle. I had a lot of work to do. Feed hogs, work in the field, take care of my handicapped brother. Had to go to the field. Get home too tired to do no sewing. My grandmama, Prissy Pettway, told me, 'You better make quilts. You going to need them.' I said, 'I ain't going to need no quilts.' But when I got me a house, a raggly old house, then I needed them to keep warm. We only had heat in the living room, and when you go out of that room you need cover. I had to get up about four, five o'clock, and get coal. Make a fire. Them quilts done keep you warm."
Irene Williams deconstructed used basketball jerseys to form a quilt that reads like a street map. with small “houses” identified by numbers along either side of a "main road” running down the center.
Deborah Pettway Young, 1916 - 1997
Lola Saulsberry, sister of quiltmaker Arcola Pettway, reminisces about their mother, Deborah Pettway Young. "She made a lot of quilts, and she made dresses. And she did it without patterns. If she saw a dress somebody had on the TV, she could make it. The same was true of her quilting. I remember something she saw on TV, she made it into a quilt. I never dreamed that people would pay attention to her and Arcola's quilts. They were just making them to keep warm."
Blocks and strips (121-01) (c. 1965) by Amelia BennettOriginal Source: National Gallery of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Strips and strings
Taught from generation to generation, string and strip quilts most fully embody the themes of utility and frugality.
They were reserved for the smallest of leftover irregular shapes and sizes of prints and solids.
“l say a quilt is like a house—when you design a house, you make in your mind how your house design to be."
Mary L. Bennett learned to quilt by observing her grandmother, Delia Bennett (1892–1976). Several of her compositions recall those of her grandmother, particularly this strip quilt in bold colors divided into four differently sized quadrants.
Mary L. Bennett, b. 1942
"I was born down here in Brown Quarters in 1942 and got raised by my grandmother Delia Bennett. I started out working in the fields—I ought to been about ten or eleven—hoeing, picking cotton, pulling corn, stripping millet, digging sweet potatoes, picking squashes and cucumbers, and putting them in the crocus sacks. I didn’t get no schooling—every now and then a day here and there. Didn’t nobody teach me to make quilts. I just learned it by myself, about twelve or thirteen. I was seeing my grandmama piecing it up, and then I start. I just taken me some pieces and put it together, piece them up till they look like I want them to look."
Freedom Quilting Bee
Gee's Bend quilts attracted national attention for the first time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in large measure because of a cooperative, the Freedom Quilting Bee, that was closely connected with local civil rights initiatives.
"One Patch," tied (1970) by America IrbyOriginal Source: The Museum of Fine Arts Houston
America Irby's daughter, Mensie Lee, worked at the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative based in Alberta, Alabama, near Gee's Bend, and would bring her mother leftover scraps.
The scraps here are leftovers from a Freedom Quilting Bee contract to manufacture dashikis.
In 1972 the Freedom Quilting Bee secured a contract with Sears, Roebuck to produce corduroy pillow covers. Made of a wide-wale cotton corduroy, the covers came in a variety of colors including "gold," "avocado leaf," "tangerine," and "cherry red."
Leftover scraps of corduroy were taken home by workers at the Bee. Given to friends and family or bundled for sale within the community, the scraps were then transformed from standardized remnants into vibrant and individualized works of art.
Nettie Jane Kennedy, 1916 - 2002
"Mama started me out making quilts. I done it with my sister three years older than me. Her name was Indiana, same as Mama. Mama and Indiana and me was the ones making quilts. Papa used to buy what they call quilt rolls for Mama to make quilts out of. It was scrap cloth. All sort of mixed-up stuff. We used old clothes sometime, if they wore out but was still fittin' to put in a quilt."
"Housetop" variation (Vote quilt) (c. 1975) by Irene WilliamsOriginal Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Wilcox County, home to Gee's Bend, was the scene of fierce voting-rights struggles in the 1960s.
Irene Williams made several quilts that contain fabric printed with the word "vote."
Irene Williams, 1920 - 2015
"I was born in Wilcox County, in Rehoboth, Alabama. My parents was born in Rehoboth, too. I didn't know about slaves when we was coming up. My people wasn't no slaves. My grandparents might have been slaves, as far as I know. Back in them years they didn't do nothing but farm in the fields. Making corn, peas, potatoes and everything, and raised hogs in the yard. That's what we lived on: what we made. When I got married, I started making quilts. I just put stuff together. I didn't do the best I could, because in them years I didn't have nothing but what little we got to make quilts and things out of."