If you are not already familiar with the quilts of Gee’s Bend, you are in for a visual treat! (This post was updated in 2022)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
Buy a Quilt from current Gee’s Bend Quilters
Post update – 2022 – I was so pleased to read this year that Etsy is providing a marketplace where quilts from the current Gee’s Bend quilters can be purchased online through their own Etsy shopfront.
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. 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. We learn so much from each other. 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.