32

The Quilts and Quilters of Gee’s Bend

If you are not already familiar with the quilts of Gee’s Bend, you are in for a visual treat!

I studied humanities in college and one of my favorite things is studying the history and the resulting art created by the people of a certain place or time.

I also (obviously) have a love for the fiber arts, particularly quilts. A big reason is creating with fiber/fabric was a way for women in the past in particular – who often had few ways to manifest their voices – to express their creativity and artistic eye, even in the midst of challenging circumstances, with little education or wealth.

 

Thousand Pyramids by Annie Bendolph image source here

 

For years on this blog I have loved learning about and sharing different quilting and handwork traditions from creators of a variety of different time periods and historical or ethnic groups including the Amish, Hmong, Manx, 19th-century westward pioneers. I even found antique quilts made by my own foremothers.

By far my favorite quilts of all time are the ones created by women who were just fighting to survive amidst challenging circumstances – such as women carving out a new life on the frontier, housewives of the Depression, or refugees seeking asylum. These were women with little leisure time who were creating survival essentials to keep their families warm – not luxuries. They didn’t have access to oodles of raw materials to create with so they used what they had on hand. Scraps of fabric, leftovers from the bare necessities of life. And yet they’d take these scraps and create works of art that fulfilled the human need for creative expression.

The quilters of Gee’s Bend fit that description perfectly.

Housetop by Nellie Mae Abrahms, image source here

 

I was introduced to and became enamored with the quilts of Gee’s Bend 12 or so years ago. They had been the subject of an exhibition that toured prestigious art galleries across the United States. These quilts astounded art critics with their modern art aesthetic – which is even more amazing as they were not created by avant-garde art students trained by professionals, but by an isolated community of impoverished black women.

Housetop Nine Square Variation by Arlonzia Pettway, image source here

 

The story behind these quilts made the exhibit even more meaningful. Many of these women are the descendants of enslaved people by only a generation or two, in the community of Boykin, Alabama. The name Gee’s Bend comes from a 19th-century plantation owner in the area, Jonathan Gee. The community is about as isolated and rural as it gets, surrounded on three sides by a bend in the Alabama River. By the 20th century this was a community of sharecroppers barely surviving.

In 1965 the little community was visited by Martin Luther King and many of them joined him in a march for voting rights in nearby Camden. The next week the ferry that provided access to Camden (the nearest commercial town they relied on for food, medicine or supplies) was shut down permanently, making what had once been a 15 minute ferry ride into a one hour journey by car.

Basket Weave by Nettie Jane Kennedy, image source here

 

In the late 20th century a collector researching examples of African-American art  discovered this surprising treasure trove of quilts dating back to the 1920’s up through the 2000’s. I believe the Gee’s Bend Exhibitions had a direct impact on the Modern Quilting movement that officially began to pick up steam in the mid 2000’s.

Obviously this is only a sliver of the African American quilting tradition that goes back much further – including story quilts. pinebur or pinecone quilts, as well as more traditional quilting motifs. But there is something about the isolation of this community that influenced a clear style and amazingly artistic eye.

Resources for learning about the Quilts of Gee’s Bend

There is so much more depth to the story of the Gee’s Bend Quilters, I won’t attempt to recreate it all here. Below are links to some great resources to see their quilts, hear their voices (both current and past) and learn about these makers and their experiences.

Pig in a Pen Medallion by Minnie Sue Coleman, image source here

 

The Souls Grown Deep website has an excellent page about the Gee’s Bend Quilters – you can see images of the different quilts, divided into categories such as quilts made from Work Clothes or Housetop style (an improvisational form of a log cabin block). There are also photos of and information about each of the Gee’s Bend quilters and examples of their works, but my favorite part is their stories told in their own words. I love hearing these women’s voices.

This article in Smithsonian Magazine tells about the original exhibits and interviews some of the living quilters.

This article talks more about the broader history and tradition of African-American influenced quilts and art.

Videos:

There are also some excellent videos documenting the history as well as the women who are still living and quilting in Gee’s Bend.

This excellent video gives a brief visual description of their story and background

This 2018 video is a window into the lives of the women who still live in this community today. You will fall in love with them.

There is an hour long PBS documentary about Gee’s Bend (produced in 2004) featuring many of the quilters who have since passed away.

Books: 

I recently bought a copy of The Quilts of Gee’s Bend by Susan Godman Rubin. It briefly shares their history, including the story of how they were discovered and came to be part of celebrated art exhibits. It also includes historical photos from Gee’s bend as well as gorgeous photos of many of the quilts. (Unsurprisingly, I easily bought it on Amazon a few weeks ago, but when I checked again yesterday, it was sold out everywhere I looked online. Hopefully you can find a copy at a local bookshop or library!)

The book Stitchin’ and Pullin’ a Gee’s Bend Quilt is a collection of poems written for children telling the story of the quilts as well as tying in the quilters’ experiences with Martin Luther King, marching for civil rights and the protection of their right to vote as well as the effort it took to do so.

I’ve been trying to track down a copy of the books from the original exhibits but having a hard time as they are now out of print. I found a copy through my library system and have requested it through inter-library loan. I’m excited to get my hands on it.

Gee’s Bend Quilting Retreat – image source here

Finally, did you know that you can attend a Gee’s Bend Quilting Retreat with China Pettway and Mary Ann Pettway? This experience is way at the top of my ‘someday’ bucket list!

Annie Bendolph, image here

I’ve been moved by the experiences and openness of these women sharing their stories of deprivation, poverty, persecution, and racism, as well as their humor, faith and kindness. Over the past few weeks as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum I have made time to listen and learn.  I’m a firm believer that we are all God’s children of equal and infinite value. Previously I had hoped that we had moved past some of the most troubling beliefs and evidences of racism, but it has been eye-opening and disheartening to hear the experiences of our black friends who still feel the effects of it in so many aspects of their everyday lives. I have learned a lot from the voices and experiences of a variety of people. I am thankful for those who are speaking and sharing.

As I was researching and preparing this post over the past few weeks, I realized this post would fall on Juneteenth – a holiday to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people. I debated sharing this post today because I don’t want to be insensitive to or try to appropriate an experience that I didn’t personally have. But to me, it felt right to highlight the story of the Gee’s Bend quilters, black Americans who were deprived of the right to vote by local government leaders far into the 20th Century, and to honor these amazing, artistic women whose talents and creativity broke through, in spite of their repressed circumstances. I love that they are receiving the recognition they deserve.

My desire on this blog has always been to celebrate and share talented people of a variety of experiences. I love this thought by Mary Lou Kownacki: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”

I love listening to people’s stories. Now is a crucial time in our country to listen to the voices of our black brothers and sisters – especially the hard parts. All of our lives are richer when our hearts are open to other people’s stories and experiences.

You Might Also Like

32 Comments

  • Reply
    hopflower
    June 19, 2020 at 1:52 pm

    Well said, Amy; and such a timely post. I loved learning about Gee’s Bend and the history behind the quilts. You don’t have to have had the exact same experience in order to understand another’s sorrow. It seems that I remember in history too, that your people (LDS) had their own plight. And it was entirely appropriate to honour these ladies with recognition of their talents. Well done.

    • Reply
      Amy
      June 19, 2020 at 3:53 pm

      Thank you. That is so kind of you to say. Learning from other people’s life experiences – especially the really hard ones – is a great motivator to be and do better.

      • Reply
        farmhousequiltsblog
        June 20, 2020 at 7:06 am

        I too love the story of the Gee’s Bend quilters and absolutely adore their quilts. I had read some of their story already but thank you for more links to learn even more. A perfect post at the perfect time, in my opinion, so thank you Amy!

  • Reply
    Elaine Randall
    June 19, 2020 at 4:33 pm

    What a timely post. I have been so intrigued by the Gee’s bend quilters since I first learned about them. I adore their work. Years ago, well before I had ever heard of them we traveled to visit family in the deep south and was disappointed to learn that we had traveled through Selma, so close to Gee’s Bend and could have made a detour. I also missed the quilt tour when it was close by a few years ago. Thank you for sharing this, always delightful to learn more.

  • Reply
    Stephanie Mullin
    June 19, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    Beautiful post! Thank you !💗

  • Reply
    auntiepatch69
    June 20, 2020 at 12:24 am

    Amazing post! Thanks!

  • Reply
    Janet M
    June 20, 2020 at 3:50 am

    Well done, Amy. I saw the Gee’s Bend traveling exhibit many years ago when it was at The Henry Ford in Dearborn Michigan. Your sincere tribute to this unique style and the artists shows solid research & historical perspective without pandering. Thank you.

    • Reply
      Cathy B.
      June 20, 2020 at 7:11 am

      Well said Janet, and thank you Amy! Let’s hope that the travelling exhibit does an encore as a result of the global conversation.

    • Reply
      Amy
      June 20, 2020 at 4:07 pm

      Thank you, Janet – that means a lot. It is definitely important to me not to pander or appropriate. All of the credit goes to these inspiring makers.

  • Reply
    Dori Johns
    June 20, 2020 at 5:16 am

    Beautiful, Amy, just beautiful! Bless you!

  • Reply
    Rosemaryflower
    June 20, 2020 at 6:08 am

    I enjoyed reading this. What a lovely story.

  • Reply
    PattyDee Quilts
    June 20, 2020 at 6:43 am

    Loved this! I have always found Gee’s Bend quilts fascinatining. I appreciate your post and your well written words. We know better…it is time to do better. Some days I want to scream…we are all Children of God, why can’t we just love each other! Some of my favorite people are from other parts of the world. Their stories are fascinating, and often hard as they talk about how they came to live here in America. As we have traveled this amazing world we live in, we have met people that have instantly become friends. We have learned from them and expanded our knowledge and love of the world and the people who inhabit it.
    Thanks Amy for sharing powerful and much needed insight!

  • Reply
    TinaK
    June 20, 2020 at 8:03 am

    Amy, Your light shines. It is clear to see that you are a woman of faith. Keep shining and sharing.

    • Reply
      Amy
      June 20, 2020 at 3:48 pm

      Thank you, Tina. That is so kind of you.

  • Reply
    Sue Marshall
    June 20, 2020 at 8:42 am

    Hi Amy, Thank you for this wonderful post. Amazing information, beautiful quilts and valuable information regarding our history. I appreciate having the opportunity to view your posts and thank you again for all that you do
    Sue Marshall

    • Reply
      Amy
      June 20, 2020 at 12:30 pm

      Thank you, Sue. xo

  • Reply
    Marsha Loewenberg
    June 20, 2020 at 8:56 am

    What a wonderful post. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Carla Kennedy
    June 20, 2020 at 7:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing the story of Gee Bend and the quilts. Cool Story

  • Reply
    MaryJo
    June 20, 2020 at 8:21 pm

    Thank you for a heart-felt post, Amy! I never heard of Gee’s Bend until 2006 when the US Postal Service issued a series of postage stamps commemorating the Gee’s BendI Quilts. Since my husband worked for the post office, we bought those stamps, but I used all of them on letters; now I wish I still had some. In 2013, my husband and I spent the summer in the Paducah, KY area so I got to see some of the actual Gee’s Bend quilts at the National Qult Museum in Paducah. It was amazing and I loved it. But I still had no interest in quilting until 2017 when our first great-grandchild was due. That first quilt I made was a whole cloth quilt, tied with embroidery thread because at that point I would never have dreamed of trying to piece or machine quilt anything. Since then, I’ve made a couple more whole cloth quilts and 3 pieced quilts and I have progressed to straight line and curvy line machine quilting with my walking foot. The most recent quilt (and the most advanced, for me) was your Craftsman quilt that I made in 2019 for our newest grandchild.
    Thank you Amy, for your kindness and willingness to share your design gifts and your love!
    I have your Baby Lattice Quilt pattern and will tackle that one of these day, and I’m determined that 2020 will be the year that I finally tackle FMQ.

    • Reply
      Amy
      June 20, 2020 at 10:21 pm

      Good for you, MaryJo! So glad you joined the fun. And I love that your most recent quilt was a Craftsman quilt. That gives me warm fuzzies. xo

  • Reply
    Sandra
    June 20, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    I was privileged to see the Quilts of Gees Bend exhibit when it was traveling. It is one of the most inspiring and fascinating stories I have ever seen. So much beautiful artistry in those quilts. It is embarrassing when you stop to think about the struggle we have choosing quilt fabrics from the many many available and how these quilters created works of art from what they had. Thank you for your lovely post.

  • Reply
    Candace Allan
    June 20, 2020 at 9:20 pm

    Thanks so much for featuring Gee’s Bend quilts & quilters. They are my favorites. I always enjoy seeing/ reading about them. I make projects inspired by their style but can’t approach their originality or organic movement! Do continue to feature unique / regional quilt styles as you have in the past.

  • Reply
    Frédérique
    June 21, 2020 at 4:43 am

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful quilts, and their story!

  • Reply
    Becky
    June 21, 2020 at 8:08 am

    You should go! Ive gone twice and an going again next march. I love mary ann and China. They are so talented and they love everyone. They sing all during the retreat. Ann who helps organize them does a wonderful job. It’s my time to renew my spirit and take a moment for myself.

    • Reply
      Amy
      June 21, 2020 at 12:57 pm

      You went! That is amazing. Yes, I need to make this happen!

  • Reply
    Rebecca Foster-Faith
    June 23, 2020 at 2:01 am

    One of the components of being an ally is to promote and highlight black voices when you can. By using your blog to bring Gees Bend to those of us who had no idea – you are doing exactly that.

  • Reply
    Debbie S.
    June 26, 2020 at 5:39 am

    I highly recommend the Gee’s Bend Quilting Retreat, held a few times a year in a rural setting near Canton, Miss. Quilters spend a few days working at their own pace on their own projects, with guidance, show-and-tell, and demonstrations by the Gee’s Bend quilters. And the food is great! I’d be there this month if not for the pandemic, which forced postponement of the summer and fall sessions. Can’t wait to attend again! (It sells out quickly, by the way.)

    • Reply
      Amy
      June 26, 2020 at 4:47 pm

      Sounds amazing! I’d really love to go someday!

  • Reply
    Sue Carey
    June 28, 2020 at 2:00 pm

    A great YA novel I read several years ago is Leaving Gee’s Bend, by Irene Latham. It is a powerful story of a girl in the community who quilts & has to cross the river to convince the doctor to attend her seriously ill mother. It’s tender & powerful & she learns lessons from her quilting.

    • Reply
      Amy
      July 3, 2020 at 11:59 am

      Awesome! Thank you so much for the recommendation!

    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.