gee's bend quilters and their journey to artistic freedom
that's sew gee's bend
october 31 - november 22
kentuck's museum gallery
about gee's bend:
The women of Gee’s Bend have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present. Resembling an inland island, Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, black community in Alabama— is surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The seven hundred or so inhabitants of this small, rural community are mostly descendants of slaves, and for generations they worked the fields belonging to the local Pettway plantation. Quiltmakers there have produced countless patchwork masterpieces beginning as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, with the oldest existing examples dating from the 1920s. Enlivened by a visual imagination that extends the expressive boundaries of the quilt genre, these astounding creations constitute a crucial chapter in the history of African American art.
Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. 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. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair—quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants. Bio courtesy of Souls Grown Deep
participating that's sew gee's bend members:
Tinnie and Minnie Pettway
Growing up as a "bender" in Gee's Bend was unlike anything today's children will ever know. Tinnie, the eldest sibling, along with her sister Minnie, the third of five, had to not only do the house chores along with their mother, but also had to take to the fields side by side with their brothers and father to prepare the ground for seasonal planting from sun up to sundown. It was then when their mother put some old shreds of fabric and clothes and a needle in their hands and had them to begin quilting little blocks. Quilting was used both as a form of punishment and a way to pass the time. Tinnie and Minnie never dreamed their “punishment” would one day hang in museums!
Tinnie, along with her brothers and Minnie, eventually moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut where they furthered their education. Tinnie earned her LPN degree in Nursing, and Minnie has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. Not long after the birth of her daughter Claudia, Tinnie decided to move back to Boykin (Gee's Bend), where she owned a daycare and eventually took over the operations of the family mercantile store. When Minnie returned to Gee’s Bend, she taught physical education and served as a guidance counselor for many children in the Wilcox County School System for over twenty-five years.
Today, both sisters have their hands full—they constantly produce quilts, wall art, and potholders. Tinnie and Minnie know they have been blessed by God—they are incredibly thankful to be able to see this time in their lives and for the ability to pass down the quilting tradition to younger generations.
Claudia Pettway Charley
“When I was a small child, I would play underneath my Grandmother’s quilting frame that covered most of the living room,” explained Claudia. Her grandmother, Malissa Pettway, her mother Tinnie, and Aunt Minnie are accomplished quilters from Gee's Bend, Alabama. Although Claudia says she had no special training, she is the fourth generation of Gee's Bend Quilters. Claudia’s artistic ideas follow the Gee's Bend style that comes from the heart, but when “energized” she uses brighter colors. She works early in the morning with all types of fabric all around her—including cotton, denim, and linen. Claudia can create the small pieces in one day; however, wall art and larger pieces take two to three weeks to complete. Claudia attributes her artistic style to the Black Belt region of Alabama. She says the freedom of feeling and expression with “no rules or judgements, just you and your material,” is an essential part of her process.
Claudia is the CEO of That’s Sew Gee’s Bend and has taught privately with Alabama Folklife, Hobby Lobby, and other small groups. That's Sew Gee's Bend's work is available at Kentuck Art Center's Gallery Shop, Alabama Goods in Homewood, The Birmingham Museum of Art, and Goat Hill Art Museum in Montgomery.
Marlene Bennett Jones
A member of the Bennett family of Boykin, Alabama, Marlene grew up learning the Gee’s Bend tradition from her mother, Agatha, and other relatives. All her quilts are hand-sewn and made of scrap materials. Using clothing from her parents, she created a masterful collection of heirloom quilts. In their memory, these quilts provide comfort for her many brothers and sisters, and, now, she continues to produce them for the second and third generations.
Loretta Pettway Bennett
Loretta Pettway Bennett is a fifth-generation quilter from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and one of the youngest to continue hand-stitching quilts in the renowned Gee’s Bend style. She is the second of eight children and oldest daughter of Tom O. and Qunnie Elizabeth Pettway Jr. and was born in December 1960. Her ancestry traces back to Dinah Miller, a great-great-great grandmother, who, according to folklore and family history, was one of the first slaves to have arrived in the Bend.
Qunnie Pettway was one of the original Gee’s Bend quilters whose fame has spread worldwide because of exhibitions, numerous publications, newspaper articles, television coverage, radio interviews, personal appearances, ten US postage stamps, and a play. Loretta has over two dozen additional relatives among that initial group of quilters, establishing her as a member of what could be considered America’s quilting royalty.
In July 1979, Loretta married her high school sweetheart, Lovett Bennett, and four months later they moved to Germany for his first tour of duty in the United States Army. This was the first of numerous places they would be stationed in the next twenty years, and it gave them the welcome opportunity to experience and enjoy the customs and traditions of various cultures. During this time, they were blessed with three sons. Although there are no daughters to inherit Loretta’s legacy of quiltmaking, the youngest son has expressed some interest in quilting.
“Traveling widely overseas and within the United States really had a big influence on my style, because in each place the people were so proud of their heritage. For instance, in the southwestern U.S., houses and cars were of very bright, bold colors. Overseas, bright colors were mostly seen in the flowers and festival clothing. By combining my travel experiences with my own legacy, I found my individual place in quiltmaking while expressing a style that still honors the quilters from Gee’s Bend and hopefully warms the heart of other quilt makers,” says Loretta.
Loretta says she really came full circle, back to her Gee’s Bend roots, when she made a quilt in honor of her mother, Qunnie Pettway, and her cousin Arlonzia Pettway. “After that quilt, I went into a zone where I was inspired to use really bold colors and different types of materials together just like the generations of relatives before me, because they used what they had. I added something else that my family especially loves, music and dancing. I was finally there, using difference shapes, sizes, colors and textures. Just like my family, imperfect, but still a family.”
The exhibition will also include quilts by Qunnie Pettway and Sally Pettway Mixon.