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The Quilts of Gee’s Bend

July 1, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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PEOPLE SINGING: Swing low sweet chariot…

JEFFREY BROWN: 80-year-old Arlonzia Pettway made her first quilt at age 13. Her first memory of a quilt goes back still further, to age six, and her great-grandmother, brought to this country as a slave.

ARLONZIA PETTWAY: She had a little quilt, not a big quilt, and it made out of red, green, and yellow. And every day she would spread it down on the ground, on the floor, for us to eat down there so she could tell us the story about Africa and how she came to America, and how she was punished and how she was beaten. And she would… every day she would spread that quilt down and say, “y’all come here, and I’m going to tell you my life, a story about my life.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Like others in the small southern Alabama community of Gee’s Bend, Arlonzia made quilts to keep her family warm. But now, quilts by her and several generations of women are hanging on museum walls — extraordinary work, from an extraordinary place. The exhibition is called “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.”

Gee’s Bend gets its name from Joseph Gee, the first white landowner here, who came in 1816. It gets its character from its location: A bend in the Alabama River, which surrounds it on three sides. For much of its history, Gee’s Bend has been an isolated community, virtually cut off from the outside world. Just one road in and out of town, in one of the nation’s poorest counties, people here worked the fields for more than a century. Even today, most are descendents of slaves from the original plantation. Many still carry the slave owner’s name of Pettway.

(Singing)

JEFFREY BROWN: Several times in the last century, the outside world looked in. In the 1930s, Farm Security Administration photographers captured the hard times, including this iconic Depression-era photo.

ARLONZIA PETTWAY: I can remember how tough it was. It was real… it was real tough in Gee’s Bend at that time. People had to work hard in the field. They had to go to the field sunup and sundown.

(Singing)

JEFFREY BROWN: In the ’40s, recordings of traditional gospel music here were made for the Library of Congress. In the ’60s, Martin Luther King preached at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. When he was slain, Gee’s Bend mules pulled his coffin. And now, the art world has discovered the community and its quilts.

WILLIAM ARNETT, Art Collector: I’d seen a picture in a book of a quilt made by a woman, Annie Mae Young, whom you’ve met. And the quilt was so exciting and so remarkable that I thought, I’ve got to go find this quilt and see if it’s still there and see if the woman’s still there.

JEFFREY BROWN: William Arnett is a collector, researcher, and promoter of southern African American arts. The quilt he’d seen in a picture was this one by Annie May Young, made in 1976 of denim and corduroy, mostly from old work pants.

WILLIAM ARNETT: The women here, while none of them use the word “art” to describe what they do, they think and they work like traditional artists the world over. They make the same types of aesthetic decisions. What you see coming from Gee’s Bend is not accidental. It didn’t happen because a bunch of women were just sewing cloth together and happily they came up with something that was beautiful or unique. It was a very conscious thing, and it’s been passed down for at least five or six generations.

(Singing)

JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent Sunday morning, 67-year-old Mary Lee Bendolph helped lead the singing at the makeshift quarters of “Ye Shall Know the Truth” Baptist Church.

(Singing)

JEFFREY BROWN: Later in the day, she joined friends at the senior center. Many hands often come together to do the quilting — that is, stitching the top piece to the cotton filling and the backing. But Bendolph says the hard part comes prior to that: Piecing together irregular strips of fabric to make a beautiful design.

MARY LEE BENDOLPH: You have to have a mind made up to piece a quilt. Because if you don’t have a mind made up to piece that quilt, it ain’t going to never go right. I sew one or two pieces together and lay it out on the floor and look at it and see if that don’t work. Sometime it’ll work out. Then I get another piece and I sit there and sew, and when I sew it all together and sit there and look, I say, “oh, that look beautiful.” Then sometime it don’t look good to me at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s in the piecing that Gee’s Bend quilters achieve such a unique look. John Beardsley is one of the curators of the exhibition.

JOHN BEARDSLEY, Curator: In a lot of quilting traditions, the goal is to follow the pattern, to make a quilt exactly like everyone else’s, to show how well you can duplicate the pattern. In Gee’s Bend, the goal is exactly the opposite. The goal is to break the pattern. The goal is to look at what other people are doing, improvise on it, change it, substitute materials, change colors, in some way, make it your own.

JEFFREY BROWN: The quilters invent complex variations out of simple designs, like the so-called Housetop.

JOHN BEARDSLEY: You’ll see one that is a pattern of concentric squares. Then you’ll see others where they’ve exploded the square and put the edges to meet each other, as in Lottie Moonie’s quilt. They can achieve remarkable variety within a very limited means and within very restricted patterns.

JEFFREY BROWN: Available materials are also limited: Old clothes, a cornmeal sack, anything handy. Denim jeans offer many shades of blue: Pant legs that grew lighter from the sun or bleaching, interior pockets that stayed dark. Arlonzia Pettway’s mother made this quilt in 1942 out of her husband Nathaniel’s old work clothes.

ARLONZIA PETTWAY: He had passed that year. And she said, “Lonnie, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take Nathaniel’s old clothes and make a quilt out of it, where I can remember him.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Arlonzia kept the quilt for its family meaning. But she says she was amazed when William Arnett first came to her home, and saw art.

ARLONZIA PETTWAY: He said, “oh, this is beautiful.” I said, “how can the thing be beautiful? It got mud on the knee. Why, he used to crawl around and dig sweet potatoes and dig sweet potatoes.” And he said, “oh, this is beautiful.” I said, “Bill, you think that thing’s beautiful?” He said, “this is beautiful.” It must be, hanging up in a museum.

(Singing)

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, it will be hanging in many museums. We joined the quilters as they made the two-hour bus trip to the latest opening, at Mobile’s Museum of Art. The exhibition originated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, then traveled to New York’s Whitney Museum, normally a showcase of the finest in contemporary American high art.

The reviews have been ecstatic. The critic for the New York Times called the quilts “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” The 70 quilts on display, made from the 1920s to just recently, include works by Lillie Mae Pettway, Loretta Pettway, and Lucy Mooney. Alvia Wardlaw is another of the exhibition’s curators.

ALVIA WARDLAW: Everything that you respond to in a magnificent work of art is here in these quilts, overlaid by the fact that the texture of the material really brings a sense of history

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course for a lot of people quilting is a craft, not an art. But you don’t see a difference?

ALVIA WARDLAW: You see, I don’t draw those lines because I think, especially within the African American tradition, quilting, hair design, cooking, singing, the music that these woman create while they’re quilting, all of these are expressions of high art to me. And I think that the other thing that is happening with these exhibitions, is that it’s once again letting us see the richness of southern culture, especially in the black community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mary Lee Bendolph has passed on her knowledge to her daughter, Essie, who, at 47, is the youngest woman with a quilt in the exhibition. But Mary Lee often thinks of those who came before, wishing they, too, had received recognition.

MARY LEE BENDOLPH: I wished this could have happened when my mama and the older people was living. They could have seen, but the lord didn’t let that happen. But I thank him for letting it be as it is today; that we receiving some of the things they did back yonder, to see where they brought us from. That song that say, “look where you brought me from. The lord done brought us from a long way.”

JEFFREY BROWN: For her part, Arlonzia Pettway continues to make quilts — when she’s not visiting museums.

You saw the exhibition in Houston and in New York. How did it feel the first time you saw the quilts hanging on the wall?

ARLONZIA PETTWAY: I felt so good. I had the happiest time I had in my life to see our quilts hanging on the wall, and peoples just praising our quilts, and everybody’s eyes full of water. And I didn’t know what was going on. I really didn’t know what was going on. White peoples was crying, and black peoples was crying, and everyone was crying. And I had such a good time and I enjoyed myself so much, I had to ask myself a question. I said, “am I dead and in heaven?”

JEFFREY BROWN: The quilts of Gee’s Bend will tour the nation at least through 2006.

JIM LEHRER: The exhibition continues in Mobile through the end of August. Its next stop is the Milwaukee Art Museum.