100 Years of Gee's Bend Quilts: 1980s - 1990s

The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, Black community in Alabama have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present.

Dirt road in Gee's Bend (2019) by Stephen PitkinSouls Grown Deep

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.

Multiple columns of rectangular blocks and bars, Essie Bendolph Pettway, 1980, Original Source: The Studio Museum in Harlem, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Essie Bendolph Pettway manipulates the columns in this quilt to achieve a spirit of movement and energy unlike the minimalist traditional “Lazy Gals."

"Crazy Quilt", Lorraine Pettway, c. 1980, Original Source: Private Collection
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Lorraine Pettway, b. 1953

"How I start to make a quilt, all I do is start sewing, and it just come to me. My daughter ask me the other day what I was making, and I said, 'I don't know yet; I'm just sewing pieces together,' and the quilt looked pretty good. No pattern. I usually don't use a pattern, only my mind."

Lorraine Pettway, William S. Arnett, 2000, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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"Bars," tied with yarn (c. 1980) by Helen McCloudSouls Grown Deep

"My sister worked at a sewing factory down in Mobile, and she give me a lot of old cloth scraps and old clothes and things, so I didn’t want to see them go to waste, so I went and made quilts out of them. We didn’t have no blankets then, so I had to keep making them things."

"I had to run six beds, children sleep two in a bed back then, sometime need four and five quilts on a bed, according to the weather."

"Birds in the Air", Lucy T, Pettway, 1981, Original Source: High Museum of Art, Museum Purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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"Housetop" variation (1982) by Gearldine WestbrookOriginal Source: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Gearldine Westbrook was in her sixties when she made this quilt, older than most women who undertook to work with corduroy, and she never used the quilt. She remembers making it because “I just want to see if l can do it.”

The quilt is made entirely of Sears corduroy obtained from the Freedom Quilting Bee, with its dominant colors called “avocado leaf” and “cherry red” in the Sears catalog.

Gearldine Westbrook, 1919 - 2016

"I been making quilts for a long time, and I got more mess I done pieced up. See, my mother and them learnt us all that stuff. They made quilts. Grandmama, too. You just had to find a way to do it yourself, out of old clothes, old overalls. We made them out of old clothes, old socks, and then after people went to work at piece factories, if you had somebody related they would get you pieces. I don’t follow no pattern. I just went to putting them together, just get me a needle and some thread and sitting down and just went to work. I was just doing the best I could."

Gearldine Westbrook, William S. Arnett, 2000, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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"Cross in Square" and "Bear Paw"—nine-block variation, Agatha P. Bennett, c. 1985, Original Source: High Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Chlorine bleach splashed into the wash would leave spots or streaks of whites on blue jeans that later—sometimes decades later—would be spliced into the blocks of a quilt.

"Log Cabin" variation (c. 1990) by Mensie Lee PettwaySouls Grown Deep

"We was taught there's so many different ways to build a quilt. It's like building a house. You can start with a bedroom over there, or a den over here, and just add on until you get what you want. Ought not two quilts ever be the same."

"A lot of people make quilts just for your bed, for to keep you warm. But a quilt is more. It represents safekeeping, it represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history."

"Housetop"—"Postage Stamp" (1996) by Mensie Lee PettwaySouls Grown Deep

“I start out with about an eighteen-inch block. That block give you a start with the color and design. Sometime I may start it at the bottom and go up like a stepladder. But not ever the same way twice.”

Mensie Lee Pettway's 1996 quilt demonstrates this technique. The bottom of the quilt contains a sequence of solid rectangular strips that announce the quilt’s palette. She builds with small blocks around the perimeter—like walls of a house—a series of rectangles and squares.

The use of small postage-stamp pieces of fancy decorator upholstery scraps salvaged by the quiltmaker gives her work a look of opulently jumbled abstraction, 

yet close examination reveals a carefully constructed “Housetop” pattern of concentric squares and frames.

Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt (1991) by Andrea WilliamsOriginal Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Creating denim work-clothes quilts requires mastering resistant materials and narrow registers of color to learn the expressive language of the quilt.

Despite the narrow color palette work-clothes, plain denim pants, broken in by seasons of use, offer a spectrum of blue tones.

"Housetop" variation, Mary Lee Bendolph, 1998, Original Source: The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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"My sister-in-law's daughter sent those clothes down here and told me to give them away, but didn't nobody want them. That knit stuff, clothes from way back yonder, don't nobody wear no more, and the pants was all bell-bottom. We ain't that out-of-style down here. I was going to take them to the Salvation Army, but didn't have to way to get there, so I just made quilts out of them."     

"Sally", Essie Bendolph Pettway, 1998, Original Source: Collection of the Artist
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Essie Bendolph Pettway, b. 1956

Essie Bendolph Pettway is the daughter of Mary Lee Bendolph and granddaughter of Aolar Mosely. "I was looking at my mama sewing back when I was seven, eight—might have been younger—and I was thinking I want to do that for myself. Maybe I was twelve or thirteen when I made my first quilt. I have a family with a lot of peoples quilting—my grandmother, a lot of aunts, my mama—and I picked up a lot from watching them and learning what they was doing. I get pleasure from my quilts. I enjoy seeing other peoples enjoying my work. I enjoy doing good work. Everything I make got to be right to the point. My son is in the Air Force. I made him a quilt out of old camouflage material, and he loved it, and the sergeant was persuasive to try to get it from him. I’m happy people appreciate what I do."

Essie Bendolph Pettway, David Raccuglia, 2000, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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