100 Years of Gee's Bend Quilts: 2000 - 2020

The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, Black community in Alabama, whose residents are mostly descended from slaves who worked the fields of the local Pettway plantation—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present.

By Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Quilting (2019) by Stephen PitkinSouls Grown Deep Foundation

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.

Blocks and strips, Mary Lee Bendolph, 2002, Original Source: National Gallery of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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“Most of my ideas come from looking at things. Quilts is in everything. Sometimes I see a big truck passing by. I look at the truck and say, I could make a quilt look like that... I see the barn, and I get an idea to make a quilt. I can walk outside and look around in the yard and see ideas all around the front and the back of my house... As soon as I leave the house I get ideas.“

Strips and strings (2003) by Mary Lee BendolphOriginal Source: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

“I say I’m going to cut out a quilt like something I see."

"I start it, but when I end up, I always got it going another way.”

Mary Lee Bendolph, b. 1935

"Families down here, they like to do together. See, we farm together, and the ladies in the family get together for quilting. In them days, they farm three months, then when the lay-by time come—’round the last of May, June—they go to piecing quilts. August, go back to the field. October and November, up into December—and then after Christmas and New Year over with—back to piecing and quilting. Piece by yourself; quilt together."

Mary Lee Bendolph, Stephen Pitkin, Pitkin Studio, 2019, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Columns of blocks (2003) by Sue Willie SeltzerOriginal Source: National Gallery of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

"I didn’t start piecing quilts till I was thirty, forty years old. I didn’t start young. I just tried to survive. You learn to do things from other people. You see them do it, you learn."

"I can’t piece by no pattern. A lot of pieces, you see, I can’t get them together. I get some blocks sometimes other peoples put together, give them to me, and I put them blocks in my quilts. See, ain’t no way in the world I can cut them little pieces. My head ain’t good enough."

Blocks and strips, Irene Williams, 2003, Original Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Strips, Louisiana Pettway Bendolph, 2003, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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"Housetop" medallion, Louisiana Pettway Bendolph, 2003, Original Source: Dallas Museum of Art, Museum purchase and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Viewing the quiltmaking tradition of Gee's Bend as a kind of artistic “inheritance,” Louisiana Bendolph has created a new generation of patchworks that explore and reshape the aesthetic practices of her community. As if rethinking the very structures of standard quilt designs, her patterns often break apart into fields of fractured forms that, both literally and figuratively, end up off the grid.

Louisiana Bendolph, b. 1960

"I had always wondered why I was born without any talent to do something good or important. When I was growing up, we weren’t taught to have pride in ourselves or to have pride in what we did. Now when people celebrate our work or praise our talent, it is hard for us to say we are proud. We are proud on the inside, but we were not really taught how to accept being proud or how to express it. I’m learning how to take pride in what I do. In the meantime, I’m still learning to accept that fact that people think of me as an artist. To me, I’m still just plain and simple Lou. I need to get used to 'Louisiana Bendolph, the artist.' But I’m proud of that. I really am."

Louisiana Pettway Bendolph, Stephen Pitkin, 2020, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Strips (2005) by Loretta Pettway BennettOriginal Source: The Studio Museum in Harlem, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Medallion, Loretta Pettway Bennett, 2005, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Broken Pieces, Marlene Bennett Jones, 2008, Original Source: Private Collection
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"Pink" (2012) by Loretta Pettway BennettOriginal Source: Private Collection

The center medallion of this Loretta Pettway Bennett quilts is a collection of cut off clothing tags.

Remains that even the most frugal quilters would typically cast aside. 

Loretta Pettway Bennett, b. 1960

"The first quilt show of Gee’s Bend quilts opened in Houston, Texas, in September 2002. There my eyes were opened, and it touched me in a way as to question myself: Can I make a quilt that someday might hang on the wall of a museum? At that time, according to me, the answer was, No way, no way—not after seeing my relatives’ quilts hanging in a museum; they had been making quilts for generation after generation. Since quilting and making quilts were such a big part of my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and my aunt’s life, I believe the seed of quiltmaking was planted into my genes. Whenever we would go to either aunt Lucy T. Pettway’s or aunt Ruth Mosely’s houses to play during the summer months, they would always say, 'Come here, sit down and learn how to sew.'"

Loretta Pettway Bennett, Stephen Pitkin, 2020, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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Stacked bricks, Delia Pettway Thibodeaux, 2017, Original Source: Collection of the Artist
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Blocks, bars, and strips, Essie Bendolph Pettway, 2018, Original Source: Collection of the Artist
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Blocks, Rita Mae Pettway, 2020, Original Source: Collection of the Artist
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Rita Mae Pettway, b. 1941

Rita Mae Pettway (b. 1941) is the granddaughter of Annie E. Pettway (1904 - 1972) and mother of Louisiana Bendolph (b. 1960).

"I learnt all of what I know from growing up watching my grandmother. I watched her cook, had to learn to wash on a rub board, learn to use a smoothing iron. Started in the fields when I was seven years old. Hoed cotton, chopped cotton, picked cotton. I would pick two-hundred-and-something pounds of cotton every day. Onliest thing we did after everything else was done, we sit by the fireplace in the wintertime and piece up quilts. Me and my grandmama Annie. She didn’t have no pattern to go by; she just cut them by the way she know how to make them. We did it by a kerosene lamp."

Rita Mae Pettway, Stephen Pitkin, 2020, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep Foundation
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End note: Louisiana Bendolph

"My mom [Rita Mae Pettway] called and invited me to go with her to Houston for the opening of the 'Quilts of Gee’s Bend' exhibit. I had never been to a museum and didn’t know what to expect. When I got to my great-grandmother’s quilt, I cried. I cried to see our history and our past up on the walls, and realizing that 'Mama' had left a legacy. She was gone. We hadn’t forgotten her, but no one else in the world knew who she was. And then to see her quilt hanging on the wall, it was so beautiful. When she had died, she was just 'Mama,' but now she had been reborn as someone who people were respecting, and all of a sudden she was important to other people in a way she had only been to us."

Louisiana Pettway Bendolph, Juan Arce, 2018, Original Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art
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GEE'S BEND: Louisiana Pettway Bendolph, Ethan Payne, 2018, Original Source: Ethan Payne
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Credits: Story

Special thanks to Ethan Payne

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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