Lesson 15.9: Art Connection

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Soulful Stitches

For four generations, African American women in a swampy, remote patch of Alabama have stitched together colorful quilts to pass the time—and to help keep their loved ones warm.

The Gee's Bend women, most of them descended from slaves, never realized that their labors of love would one day be admired as a prized art form.

Today, the fine-crafted work by 46 quiltmakers from Gee's Bend is exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The exhibition includes old photographs of Gee's Bend and a 20-minute historical film.

“The Quilts of Gee's Bend,” however, is more than just a display of bedcovers made from the 1920s to the 1990s. The collection of 60 quilts is also a glimpse into a period of history when many African Americans in the Deep South still picked cotton to survive. Many of the towns' residents dealt with racial discrimination and poverty.

Haunting Memories

Mary Lee Bendolph, 67, is one of the Gee's Bend quilters. She said she had little choice but to learn quilting as a young girl growing up poor. “We had no TV, no radio, no nothing,” she said. “That's the way we learned—sitting, watching our mamas piecing the quilt.”

Arlonzia Pettway, 79, is another quilter. When she was a little girl, she sat with her siblings and baby cousins on her great-grandmother's quilt. The young girls would listen intently to grandmama Dinah Miller's stories of slave ships and cruel slave masters.

“I'd wake up at night and think of the stories she told,” Pettway said. “I didn't forget them. I pawned them in my heart.”

Storytelling With Cloth

To tell their stories, the women of Gee's Bend don't sew words on the quilts. Rather, they let each quilt speak for itself through the colorful fabric and intricate stitching that makes each quilt different.

Intended for practical use in homes, the quilts were often made from the fabrics of daily life. Those fabrics included discarded work clothes, cornmeal sacks, old handkerchiefs, rags, and strips of cotton bedsheets.

In most cases, a quilt's design resulted from the shape of the tattered fabric, which might have been recycled from old trouser legs, worn dresses, or window curtains.

Loretta Pettway, 60, is known for making brilliant quilts from torn and shredded scraps of denim and other materials.

“I didn't have a good scissor,” she said. “I mostly had to rip [the fabric pieces] loose. I just fit them the way they were cut.”

She created her artwork while raising seven children. “I never had no time for myself,” Loretta Pettway said.

History of Gee's Bend

There is a reason the quilts of Gee's Bend are unique. The small community is tucked away into a 5- by 7-mile oxbow, or U-shaped bend, of the Alabama River.

No bridge or ferry crosses the river. That leaves Gee's Bend and its population of 750 cut off miles from the nearest town.

“What makes Gee's Bend distinct is the freedom with which the women approach their art,” said John Beardsley, an art expert.

The land on which Gee's Bend sits was once a cotton plantation. In 1845, Mark Pettway bought the property from the family of Joseph Gee. Pettway then moved his family and more than 100 slaves from North Carolina to Gee's Bend.

Many current Gee's Benders are the great-grandchildren of Pettway plantation slaves and bear the family name.

Today, quilting is a dying art in Gee's Bend. There are only a few quilters who keep at it on a regular basis. That is a far cry from a half-century ago, said Early Pettway, 73. “Way back yonder,” he said, “everybody here but the men quilted.”

Word Wise

descended:
Came down from something or someone in the past: Many leaves descended from the tree during the storm.

glimpse:
Brief look: Tom glimpsed at the back of the book to decide if he liked it before he bought it.

cruel:
Mean; vicious: The slave masters were very cruel to the slaves.

pawned:
Used to further the purposes of another interest: She pawned the memories of her father so she could later tell her children about him.

discarded:
Thrown away: Sona discarded her unused food when lunch was over.

tattered:
Ripped: The tattered flag flapped in the wind.

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Activity

Make a word web. Choose one of the words above, and write that word in the center of a piece of paper. Write down all the words that you associate with the center word and connect them to the center word with a line. You may use a dictionary or thesaurus to help you. Be sure to include different forms of the word in your word web.

Data Hunt

Think about what kind of fabrics that, when quilted together, would tell a story about you. Create your own quilt design made of different patterns using shapes, colors, and textures. First, draw a template of your design. Then you can duplicate it to complete the quilt and color it in.