Top: Mary Margaret Bendolph Bottom: Loretta Bennett “Forever”
One of the greatest American art movements was largely ignored and overlooked for over 100 years. In a remote community nestled between three rivers called Gee’s Bend, Alabama four generations of women designed some of the greatest American masterpieces, innovated the medium of quilting, questioned art world narratives around the white male exclusivity of abstract art and solidified quilting as an important branch of African American Art. As a southern rural community descended from African slaves, the women of Gee’s Bend, formerly located in Boykin, Alabama part of the Black Belt of Alabama, maintained strenuous schedules involving family care giving and farm labor, finding a little time to prepare bedding for the winter months outside of work. Piecing together work clothes from family farm laborers, old bedding— and later in the 1970s, fabric scraps from their day jobs at factories— these women created highly personal designs that told the story of their community. The colorways strongly parallel other African diaspora arts characteristics like bold and high contrast color-pairings, minimalist abstract compositions, and a heavy focus on improvisation, call-and-response motifs, and individual expression.
Few American communities maintained multigenerational art practices into the 20th century, but the Gee’s Bend isolation and strong community ties fostered a thriving art tradition that stretched as far back as mid 1880s and continued prominently through the 1970s, maintaining conversations between generations and commenting on their lives through composition and materials. Several factors have been noted to contributed to developing this remarkable art community. The first is necessity: since the residents did not have heat or electricity, they needed quilts for warmth and this prompted most women in the community to maintain this art practice out of necessity. Another issue is isolation: with limited activities and outside influence, a single skill can quickly dominate an area as residents focus primarily on this singular hobby, sharing resources and information. The next is resource constraints, both in availability and financially, sparked innovation in materials and reuse of very personal textiles like work clothes. Lastly, the sheer number of women involved in this craft make it an undeniable movement and a common aesthetic naturally developed.
The history of the community demonstrates the ravages of the American economic and legal system to exploit and disenfranchise black communities. The Gee Plantation was purchased by an owner named Pettway and many residents that descend from the people he enslaved carry this surname today. After slavery was abolished, the majority of the newly freed people had no other option than to stay on the land and work as sharecroppers. The residents lived a rough, barely adequate agricultural lifestyle without much infrastructure until the 1930s when the community was nearly decimated when a deceased merchant’s family demanded to collect on property he had loaned the sharecroppers and their tools, animals, and food were seized. The community was debilitated and survived from food rations donated from the Red Cross.
Top: Mary Lee Bendolph (R) Loretta Pettway (L), Bottom: Jorena Pettway & Jenni Pettway quilting, 1937
From Smithsonian Magazine:
Gee's Bend men and women grew and picked cotton, peanuts, okra, corn, peas and potatoes. When there was no
money to buy seed or fertilizer, they borrowed one or both from Camden businessman E. O. Rentz, at interest rates
only those without any choice would pay. Then came the Depression. In 1931 the price of cotton plummeted, from
about 40 cents a pound in the early 1920s, to about a nickel. When Rentz died in 1932, his widow foreclosed on
some 60 Gee's Bend families. It was late fall, and winter was coming.
"They took everything and left people to die," Pettway said. Her mother was making a quilt out of old clothes when
she heard the cries outside. She sewed four wide shirttails into a sack, which the men in the family filled with corn
and sweet potatoes and hid in a ditch. When the agent for Rentz's widow came around to seize the family's hens,
Pettway's mother threatened him with a hoe. "I'm a good Christian, but I'll chop his damn brains out," she said. The
man got in his wagon and left. "He didn't get to my mama that day," Pettway told me.
Pettway remembered that her friends and neighbors foraged for berries, hunted possum and squirrels, and mostly
went hungry that winter until a boat with flour and meal sent by the Red Cross arrived in early 1933. The following
year, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided small loans for seed, fertilizer, tools and livestock.
Then, in 1937, the government's Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) bought up
10,000 Gee's Bend acres and sold them as tiny farms to local families. In 1941, when Pettway was in her late teens,
her father died. "Mama said, 'I'm going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover
up under it for love.'" There were hardly enough pants legs and shirttails to make up a quilt, but she managed. (That
quilt—jostling rectangles of faded gray, white, blue and red—is included in the first exhibition.)
The government eventually set up tracts of land for the displaced black and indigenous residents to own their own properties but many of the workers were forced to leave when mechanized farming reduced jobs. Due to the unique geographical feature of being isolated like an in-land island between three bordering rivers, the area became further isolated when a ferry line stopped operating in the 60s and the townspeople could no longer access infrastructure nor vote. In the 1960s, Civil Rights leaders who were active in the area to assist with voting rights (Gees Bend is just southwest of Selma) fell in love with the quilt designs and helped locals sell them by mail order for $25 each.
With such rich lineage it was surprising-- yet thoroughly unsurprising-- that the Gee’s Bend Collective was not recognized by the Art world sooner, which is notorious for overlooking working class/poor, rural, female, artists of color and for people from any intersection of two or more of those communities, it is much less likely that they will be acknowledged; when and if acknowledged, the art world often marginalizes them as Folk Art.
It wasn’t until 1998 when a white collector named William Arnett (who they later brought suit against for exploitation -- continue reading for that part), was researching black art traditions came across a photograph of Annie Mae Young’s quilt draped over a woodpile and set out to find it. Just before he arrived in town she had burned a number of old quilts because the burning cotton keeps away mosquitos. Luckily for Arnett, the quilt he desired hadn’t yet been burned and he offered her a check for a few thousand dollars for a stack of the old quilts she had in storage. Word quickly spread that an art collector was paying for older threadbare Gee’s Bend quilts. Meanwhile, Arnett presented the quilts to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Peter Marzio who agreed to display them in an exhibit called “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” in 2002. Over decades, changes in the US economy, the dwindling role of family-centered agriculture, accessibility to resources, and mass media faded traditional practices and family structures. Gee’s Bend’s quilting tradition was dying as the younger generations had moved away for jobs and education, people were spending less time on traditional crafts, and the residents of Gee’s Bend had heated homes that no longer relied on quilting for the sole source of warmth; but as the art show gained buzz, the new outside interest rekindled the practice. Some of the older women who hadn’t quilted in years took it back up as many of their children and grandchildren began quilting to connect with their heritage. A non-profit started by the Arnett family helped support fifty local women to begin the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to market their work. Jane Fonda donated a million dollars to a fund to support the showing of the work and Kathy Ireland licensed designs for a line of home goods.
Sounds like the story ends in a rosy finale? Not in the least. A few of the quilters of Gees Bend ended up filing suit against the Arnetts on the grounds they had cheated them out of their proceeds and inadequately compensated them for their designs. After museum exhibits and shows with quilts priced in the tens of thousands, an exclusive USPS printing of licensed stamps, a Visa card, books authored by the Arnetts, and merch (including a duvet), Loretta Pettway said she had only earned $19,000 total over the years. Lucinda Franklin also sued Arnett's son Matt for damages when two quilts she let him borrow were never returned (until she filed suit) and after discovering the terms of a copyright agreement she said he tricked her into signing. It is worth noting that most of the quilters did not join the lawsuit and one stated that she didn't understand why those quilters thought a lawsuit was necessary when asked about it.
A lawyer representing the lawsuit commented about the Arnetts that "there was deliberate exploitation. It stems from a sort of arrogance that says 'How dare you question me? I brought these women to the forefront." In an email, William issued the statement: "I risked nearly everything I have to advance the artistic cause of an impoverished.... black community, against the tide of history and public opinion, and in the face of ridicule... I was directly responsible for bringing their unheralded work to the attention of the wider world, both the art world and general public and I was committed to helping them in whatever ways I could," echoing sentiments in line with a white savior complex, but it is also worth noting that the New York Times investigation could not confirm any exploitation on Arnett's part and suggested that the product deals Arnett struck were simply not lucrative as the quilters may expect. They noted that while most people assume that glossy books and printed items earn a lot of money, publishers often break even or short change the author in exchange for exposure. In the end, both parties dismissed the lawsuit and each party paid their own legal expenses. The defense was pleased and the plaintiff's lawyer stated simply 'it has been resolved' and did not elaborate on how. Regardless, of whether the Arnetts committed theft or deception, what we do know is that the quilters of Gee's Bend like Loretta Pettway, for indoor plumbing is a recent luxury, have not been sufficiently compensated for their contribution to art and is an issue that needs to be corrected.
A sampling of the huge catalog of quilts maintained by Souls Grown Deep
“Gee's Bend's "eye-poppingly gorgeous" quilts, wrote New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, "turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee (if you think I'm wildly exaggerating, see the show), arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South." Those well-versed in art can’t help but to drop names like Josef Albers, Agnes Martin, Frank Stella, Piet Mondrian to describe the Gee Bend quilts yet, these women created these quilts without ever having seen those works, and dating back to the early 19th century, the Gee’s Bend style pre-dates the canonical art names that they are said to look like. Rather than compare the black women artists of Gee’s Bend to European painters, history and language should be adjusted to account for the proper chronology that situates the Gee’s Bend collective *before many of the seminal European abstract painters. Some of the most notable of the many Gee’s Bend quilters are Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Lee Bendolph, Loretta Bennett, Arlonzia Pettway, Annie Mae Young and Loretta Pettway.
So, while the Gee’s Bend quilters are now well-known, shown in museums globally, and recognized as a great American Art movement, the community of Gee’s Bend has not be adequately compensated for their contributions. While the general public wouldn't have found out about Gees Bend without the museum shows, coffee table books, and NYT articles, we have to ask: Are the people of Gee's Bend better off for it? Many of the quilts are now housed in prominent museums yet over half of the Gee Bend community lives below poverty lines in one of the poorest counties in the nation. There are community quilts for sale in a repurposed schoolhouse called the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective but at 40 miles from the nearest grocery store or restaurant, it doesn’t get many tourists. The New York Times reported in 2007 that "the quilters’ collective, an informal group of about 40 members, pays $150 a month to rent a former day care center marked by a small, hand-painted sign, where one room is stacked floor to ceiling with quilts. Small quilts go for $200 to $1,000, while bed-sized ones are priced at $950 to $7,500. When a sale is made, half the money goes to the quilter and half to the collective, which periodically disburses dividends to all members. Royalties from reproductions of the quilts go into the foundation, which now contains $147,000. The system was designed to forestall jealousy, protect elderly quilters who can no longer sew, and acknowledge the interdependent nature of the community, where many quilters are related and styles were handed down from mother to daughter."
With the support of an Atlanta-based non profit called Souls Grown Deep that partners with quilters like Mary Margaret Pettway, they manage the legacy of the Gees Bend quilts and are looking to copyright the designs. An infrastructure development plan, which as gained the attention of the UN, is in the works to get better sanitation, food, and clean water to residents, as well as get the area municipal independence. In 2018, Filmmaker Marris Curan made the short documentary While I Yet Live about five quilters and freedom fighters from Gee's Bend, Alabama but many people are skeptical as to the point of all this attention by predominately white dealers and media platforms mining the inspirational wealth of Gees Bend for caché or income and leaving the actual community uncompensated, the same as when they walked in.
Top: From Film While I Yet Live.
L: Jessie T Pettway, Middle & R: Mary Lee Bendolph
Souls Grown Deep organizes Gee’s bend quilts into the following categories
Abstract/Improvised - Called ‘my way’ style quilts, the quilter begins with a motif and then starts improvising in any direction as they see fit, abandoning traditional patterns and extensive planning. Characterized by unexpected pathways, abstract shapes, and ‘distortion’ illusions, these quilts usually avoid perfect geometric shapes in favor of unexpected forms and excitingly jarring color patterns.
Housetop / Bricklayer - This style of quilt is the most prevalent among Gee’s Bend Quilters that consists of concentric squares reflecting and framing one another.
Pattern / Geometry - multiplying, repeating, echoing shapes is a common theme in Gee’s Bend quilts. They often contain bold, abstract, call-and-response plays on one or two shapes with unexpected spots of color highlighting a handful of squares similar to that of abstract paintings.
Sears Corduroy - In the early 70s many Gee’s Bend women worked at a sewing cooperative that produced pillows for Sears Roebuck. The women would bring home remnants and use the fabrics for their quilts which produced some remarkable corduroy quilts in olive, plum, gold, and cherry red.
Work Clothes - As fabric and sewing notions can run expensive, this hard-working, isolated rural community was resourceful with materials, often piecing together old work clothing: men’s shirts, overalls, aprons, etc. The mends and stains of the clothing seen on the quilt provide additional connection to the heritage of black life in the rural south.
For more information:
To read more about Gee's Bend history visit: Smithsonian Magazine
For more information on the collective today and to see a catalog of quilts visit: Souls Grown Deep
On quilt copyrighting, check out: The Nation
On Gee's Bend municipal issues today read this CItylab article