How a small Alabama community stitched itself into the history of American art
The women of Gee’s Bend transformed a practice born out of necessity into an expression of political defiance and then an art form celebrated the world over. Here, we speak to one of the community’s contemporary torch-bearers and learn about its remarkable history.
Looking back, 2002 was a major turning point for Loretta Pettway Bennett. That was the year the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York put on the country’s first major exhibitions dedicated to the Quilts of Gee’s Bend. For Loretta, it was the first time she had seen these quilts – which she’d been surrounded by her entire life and which had been crafted by her own mother and grandmother, among others – displayed high on the walls of a gallery.
“It was mind-blowing for me,” she says, recalling the day nearly two decades ago when she visited the show in Texas. “It took a little while for us to see what they were seeing in these quilts. I saw them in pictures before they were displayed in Houston and the photos really didn’t do them justice. Until we got to Houston and saw them on the walls.” The exhibition was a huge success and marked a shift in how the quilts were perceived – not just by the art community but by the actual artists themselves. “I got to see all these people from different backgrounds and different ages and nationalities and races, all coming and admiring the quilts,” Loretta says. “Our eyes were beginning to open, to see that these are really art.”
Gee’s Bend, also known as Boykin, is a small rural community in Alabama, just southwest of Selma, where quilts have been part of the fabric of life for over a century. The residents of this community are direct descendants of generations of slaves, who worked on a nearby cotton plantation. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many of the residents were provided loans by the Federal Government to buy the land that their ancestors had worked. It was against this backdrop that the tradition of quilt-making flourished.
Originally, the practice was inextricably connected to the seasons and the farming calendar. “In the summer months, when everything had started to grow and didn’t need as much attention, the women would have more time to piece their quilt tops,” Loretta explains. “And then after the harvest time, they would quilt them.” In this way, the women of the community would ensure the blankets were finished and ready in time, before the colder months of winter truly set in.
The earliest existing quilts from this period are crafted from used and found materials. “They used anything they could get their hands on,” says Loretta. “Things like leftover pants or the cloth sacks that the flour and sugar came in. Sometimes you can see the striped material of bedding. Anything that was sewable.” At this time, they were highly practical household objects – although they were often beautiful, they were sewn primarily to keep a family warm through winter in draughty houses.
“It’s about how collective action and artistry can transform lives.”Brittany Luberda, Assistant curator of decorative arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art
The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s saw the craftswomen and the quilts of Gee’s Bend take on a new significance, however. Alabama became one of the focal points of the fight for Black voting rights and many civil rights leaders and activists began travelling in and out of the state to support the movement here. In 1965, Martin Luther King visited Gee’s Bend, which was not far from the path of the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march.
The following year, after local authorities had attempted to isolate the Black community in Alabama (by discontinuing vital ferry routes), the women of Gee’s Bend founded the Freedom Quilting Bee, an artistic workers’ cooperative that provided much-needed economic opportunity and political empowerment. Through the Bee, they shipped their quilts to New York, where they were sold at auction, raising funds for these Black communities in Alabama.
1 of 5
Stella Mae Pettway: Big Wheel, 1986 (Courtesy the artist and Alison Jacques, London © Stella Mae Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London)
The Baltimore Museum of Art recently held an exhibition, She Knew Where She Was Going, looking at the connection between Gee’s Bend quilts and the Civil Rights movement. The museum’s assistant curator of decorative arts, Brittany Luberda, tells It’s Nice That where the name for the show came from. To prepare for the exhibition, she interviewed Doris Mooney, the daughter of Nell Hall Williams, who created the quilt Blocks and Strips in 1971. “She described how her mother would cut strips of used or found fabric, lay them out in front of her in a pattern, and then stack them all up and sew one-at-a-time from memory, building the pattern from her mind,” says Brittany. “It’s Doris’ quote to describe this process, ‘She knew where she was going,’ that became the exhibition title.” The phrase also captures what Brittany describes as “the willpower of the quilters to guide their own careers and their craftsmanship”.
The exhibition told the story of the Freedom Quilting Bee and how the women of Gee’s Bend established it in order to “promote their craftsmanship and collectively create quilts for the financial betterment of themselves and their community,” Brittany adds. “It’s about how collective action and artistry can transform lives.”
Fast-forward a few decades and the exhibitions in Houston and New York in 2002 marked a step-change in how the quilts were perceived by the art world in the US and around the world. Today they are seen as constituting a crucial chapter in the history of American art and can be found in the permanent collections of over 20 leading art museums. Earlier this year, Alison Jacques, a gallery in London, presented the first solo exhibition in Europe devoted to three generations of women artists living in Gee’s Bend.
Loretta Pettway Bennett was one of the artists whose work went on show at Alison Jacques, along with her mother, Qunnie Pettway, and her grandmother, Candis Mosely Pettway. Loretta was born in 1960 and so has witnessed first-hand much of the story of Gee’s Bend quilt-making, as it has evolved from a practical necessity into an expression of political defiance and now into an art form that is renowned and celebrated worldwide.
She was taught by the older women in her family and was surrounded by quilts throughout her childhood. One of her earliest memories is of being in a house with her mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins and “playing under the quilts” as they stitched together above her. She made her own first attempt at 12. “That whole summer I worked on a quilt,” she recalls. “I worked on it every day of the week except Sunday and completed it by hand. But it came out all lopsided, all kind of crooked.” Fortunately, her mother was on hand to “straighten it out”.
“As I was looking around at the quilts hanging on the walls, I asked myself, ‘I wonder if my quilts will ever hang on a wall in a museum?’”Loretta Pettway Bennett
Loretta has since honed her craft and, today, is as skilled a quilt-maker as there is. She is represented by Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, where she is set to open a show towards the end of November 2021. Connecting with a custom that is over a century old, Loretta still often prefers to make her creations with used and previously worn materials, like second-hand pieces of denim and corduroy. “I love using stuff that people have worn and have loved to wear,” she remarks. “Maybe it was their favourite, and I can put it in a quilt and hopefully express that favourite colour or that favourite feeling they got from wearing it.”
Although she is clearly still very active as an artist, Loretta is also looking ahead and hoping to pass her quilt-making skills on to future generations. “I have three sons; I wasn’t blessed with a girl,” she says. “But I just got blessed with a granddaughter. I’m planning on passing it down to her as soon as she gets a little bit bigger. I’ll get her to hold the needle and start her out, as I did.”
Although she is absolutely steeped in the traditions and craftsmanship of Gee’s Bend quilt-making, it has taken Loretta a while to see it the way that others do. She thinks back to that first exhibition she visited in Houston back in 2002. “As I was looking around at the quilts hanging on the walls, I asked myself, ‘I wonder if my quilts will ever hang on a wall in a museum?’ And I was like, ‘There’s no way they’ll ever be on a wall.’ I just could not even imagine it.”
Gradually, she has begun to see the quilts for what they are: remarkable artworks that belong in museums as a vital chapter in the story of American art. “Even though I don’t see myself as an artist, I’m beginning to see what people see,” she says. “I saw a quote in one of the museums, I think in Indianapolis: ‘Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.’ And wow, it is just amazing what you can make others see through what you create.”
Detail from Rita Mae Pettway: Pig in the pen – block style, 2019 (Courtesy the artist and Alison Jacques, London © Rita Mae Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London)