1/17/2022 3 Comments
Gee's Bend Quilts
Today we got to do something that I would say has been on my Quilting Bucket List for a long time. We went to Gee's Bend, Alabama. Never heard of the Gee's Bend Quilters before? Not surprising! You can find information online if you want to know more, but I will try to explain what makes this such a big deal for me.
I'm not sure of the year, but when I was visiting my sister, Jan, in San Franscisco we went to an exhibit of the Gee's Bend Quilts at the de Young Museum of Art. I don't think I knew at all what it was about before we went, so it must have been Jan's idea. I had never seen quilts like these before. They were clearly made from old clothing (especially the denim pants!) and polyester or any kind of fabric. Not made from any traditional pattern like I was used to, looking quite contemporary like color blocking. I was really wondering why these primitive quilts were displayed at such a fine gallery. Then I started reading the stories about the quilts, and grew more interested and was drawn in.
The area of Gee's Bend is in an isolated area of Alabama, around the middle, north to south, of state. The Alabama River is very convoluted there, and encircles this bit of land. There's really only 1 road into there, or the ferry to cross the river to Camden, which was the preferred mode of travel. The population of Gee's Bend is descended from slaves. Part of the history is the fact that the landowner was named Pettway. When the slaves were freed, many were able to own a bit of the land and became sharecroppers. Many also took the last name of Pettway, which was not unexpected then. In the 60's, during the Civil Rights Movement, many of the Gee's Bend residents wanted to go to the County Seat in Camden to register to vote. Camden was like many small cities back then, run by its white leaders. They did not like the idea of the Gee's Bend sharecroppers getting the right to vote, and they shut down the ferry to impede the freedom of the black community to vote. It was non-operational for about 40 years. Here's a view from today's ferry--
Some women of Gee's Bend, all living in poverty, found a community centering around the sewing and making of quilts. Their resources were very limited, so they used whatever fabric in whatever color that was available to make the utility quilts needed to keep the families warm. They were later "discovered" by an art collector and historian, and were then able to appreciate some income from their work.
Now, back to the deYoung - I watched a video about the quilters that day, and I was really moved by their stories. I especially identified with one woman who described her joy in the touch and feel of fabric. It was exactly the same way I felt sometimes with quilts that I was making. I remember I almost cried, because her words could have been my own! So ever since then, I have been attuned to the work of the Gee's Bend quilters. I have a beautiful coffee table book at home with wonderful pictures. When I realized that we were not out of reach of visiting this community while we're here in Alabama, Bob agreed to go along on this latest quilt boondoggle.
The pictures you see above are actually paintings on display around the community. We rode the ferry (now all electric with lithium batteries) and spoke with 2 of the ferrymen about the quilters. One knew Mary Ann Pettway, a leader of the quilters, and gave us some back story and directions of how to find the building that the quilters often work in. We were instructed to take the right fork in the road after leaving the ferry, and we would drive right to the place. On the way, we encountered an elderly man walking along the road in the direction we were headed. We stopped, and spoke, and it was clear that he needed a lift if he was going to make it up the hill and all the way to his destination. We talked awhile, and he pointed out the building before we stopped and dropped him with some people he knew. We went back to the building, and I was disappointed that there was really nothing happening there. My pie-in-the-sky version of this story is that I sat and sewed and talked with the quilters, but that was not to be. They aren't involved in a daily tourist attraction just for my benefit! But just making this trip, riding the ferry, visiting the community, all combined to make this a very good day!
1/17/2022 07:24:13 pm
This was very interesting to read! Thanks for all the great information!
1/18/2022 05:53:29 am
Enjoyed this storyPam. I have been a fan of the Gees Bend quilters for a while. There is such strength in their bold designs.
1/18/2022 08:16:51 am
I am so glad you were able to do that even if it was different from what you imagined.
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Hi! I'm Pam! Join me on this journey through the next steps of life!