Biography

The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers are an intergenerational community of women artists living in Gee’s Bend, officially known as Boykin, a remote hamlet situated on a U-turn in the Alabama River. The geographic isolation of Boykin has fostered a unique environment for both the women’s art and their chosen method of quilting, with their experimental processes and compositional language of the quilts have been passed down through generations of Gee’s Bend residents, from grandmothers to mothers to daughters. Indeed, family connections run through the quilting community like binding threads: Qunnie Pettway (b. 1943 – d. 2010), mother of Loretta Pettway Bennett (b. 1960) and auntie of Loretta Pettway (b. 1942). With their vernacular techniques preserved and uniquely interpreted by each generation, the quilts of the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers signify both a collective past and a hope for the future.

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Uninhibited by the conventions of fine or folk art, the Gee’s Bend quilts constitute a crucial chapter in the history of American art. The vivid and multi-layered textiles preserve numerous vocabularies and approaches to form; the interplay between symbols and asymmetry refers to histories of African textiles while also evoking the formal qualities of Modernist painting, something evidenced in the quilts of Sue Willie Seltzer (b. 1922 – d. 2010), Nancy Pettway (b. 1935) and Rebecca Myles Jones (b. 1896 – d. 1986). Forgoing more traditional art historical classifications, the quiltmakers organise their quilts into loose categories: ‘Abstraction & Improvisation’, ‘Pattern & Geometry’, ‘Housetop & Bricklayer’, ‘Lazy Gal’ and ‘Work Clothes’. These process-based taxonomies often lend the works their titles, as is demonstrated in Lucy Mingo’s (b.1931) ‘Housetop’ – ‘Log Cabin’ Variation (c. 1985) and Minder Coleman’s ‘Log Cabin’ – ‘Courthouse Steps’ Variation (Local Name: ‘Bricklayer’) (c. 1940). But the presence of such organisational parameters has never prevented formal experimentation: ‘Star’ – Ten-Block Variation (1937) by Nettie Young (b. 1916 – d. 2010) sees six and eight-point stars in gold, blue and red held within a patchwork lattice.

As Michael Kimmelman wrote of the Gee’s Bend quilts in The New York Times in 2002, following the inclusion of several works in a group exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art: ‘The results, not incidentally, turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.’ Kimmelman continued: ‘These women, closely bound by family and custom […] spent their precious spare time—while not rearing children, chopping wood, hauling water and ploughing fields—splicing scraps of old cloth to make robust objects of amazingly refined, eccentric abstract designs.’ But the Gee’s Bend quilts were not sewn in the name of recreation alone – and neither were they originally conceived of as artworks. Instead, they were created out of necessity and a staunch belief that nothing should go to waste. When the nights grew cold, the women would stitch together scraps of fabric to insulate their children’s beds. Which is not to say that aesthetic consideration was not given. It was, and is, a common practice for the quiltmakers to publicly ‘air out’ their quilts every Spring, providing members of the local community with the opportunity to survey one another’s methods and take inspiration for their future designs.

The residents of Gee’s Bend are almost all descendants of slaves who worked on the original Pettway plantation – many bear the slaveowner’s name to this day. During the Civil Rights Movement, the community gained national recognition when they established the Freedom Quilting Bee, a co-operative that translated their centuries-old domestic craft into a viable economic enterprise and saw their quilts distributed across the country. In 1999, the Los Angeles Times featured Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935) in the Pulitzer Prize-winning article ‘Crossing Over’, an account of the community’s efforts to re-establish the Alabama River ferry service, which was suspended in 1967 by the white community who wanted to prevent the residents from registering to vote. In 2006, 39 years later, the ferry was reinstated. (Bendolph, daughter of Aolar Carson Mosely, b. 1912 – 1999, and mother of Essie Bendolph Pettway, b. 1956, is still quilting today.)

The first major museum exhibition dedicated to the Quilts of Gee’s Bend was presented in 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and featured such quiltmakers as Helen McCloud (b. 1938), Lutisha Pettway (b. 1925 – d. 2001); Polly Bennett (b. 1922 – d. 2003); and Rachel Carey George (b. 1908 – d. 2011), amongst others. In 2006, the book Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt was launched at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; that same year, the U.S. Postal Service issued ten commemorative stamps featuring images of Gee’s Bend quilts. More recently, works were shown in ‘History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation’ at the Metropolitan Museum, New York (2018). The quilts of Gee’s Bend are now in many prominent museum collections including Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Tate, London.

Representation of the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers involves working directly with the individual artists and in partnership with Souls Grown Deep, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the contributions of African American artists from the Southern states. A percentage of the income generated with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation is reinvested into community projects in Boykin and the surrounding area, while a percentage of profits generated as a result of the gallery’s relationships with the artists will be reinvested in the community via future charitable enterprises.

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Works

Nettie Young, ‘Star’ – Ten-block Variation, 1937

Cotton
205.7 x 182.9 cm (81 x 72 in)
Courtesy: © Nettie Young / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Minder Coleman, ‘Log Cabin’ – ‘Courthouse Steps’ Variation (Local Name: ‘Bricklayer’), c.1940

Cotton and wool
177.8 x 190.5 cm (70 x 75 in)
Courtesy: © Minder Coleman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Joerina C. Pettway, ‘Housetop’ – ‘Log Cabin’ Variation, c.1940

Cotton
213.4 x 198.1 cm (84 x 78 in)
Courtesy: © Joerina C. Pettway; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Rachel Carey George, ‘Star’ Variation Alternating with ‘Housetop’ Blocks, 1940s

Cotton, denim and rayon
213.4 x 203.2 cm (84 x 80 in)
Courtesy: © Rachel Carey George / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Polly Bennett, Basket Weave, 1943

Cotton
213.4 x 172.7 cm (84 x 68 in)
Courtesy: © Polly Bennett / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Rebecca Myles Jones, Center Medallion – Stacked Bricks with Checkerboard Frame, c.1950s

Cotton and corduroy
215.9 x 193 cm (85 x 76 in)
Courtesy: © Rebecca Myles Jones / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Loretta Pettway, ‘Log Cabin’ – Single Block ‘Courthouse Steps’ variation (Local Name: ‘Bricklayer’), 1959

Cotton
213.4 x 177.8 cm (84 x 70 in)
Courtesy: © Loretta Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Sue Willie Seltzer, Blocks, c.1965

Polyester knit
190.5 x 190.5 cm (75 x 75 in)
Courtesy: © Sue Willie Seltzer / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Lutisha Pettway, ‘Housetop’ Variation with ‘Star’ Medallion, c.1975

Corduroy
223.5 x 200.7 cm (88 x 79 in)
Courtesy: © Lutisha Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Helen McCloud, ‘Bars’ Tied with Yarn, c.1980

Cotton blends, cotton and nylon
215.9 x 205.7 cm (85 x 81 in)
Courtesy: © Helen McCloud / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Lucy Mingo, ‘Housetop’ – ‘Log Cabin’ Variation, c.1985

Cotton and cotton/polyester blend
246.4 x 215.9 cm, 97 x 85 ins
Courtesy: © Lucy Mingo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Essie Bendolph Pettway, Sallie, 1998

Corduroy, denim and polyester
233.7 x 233.7 cm (92 x 92 in)
Courtesy: © Essie Bendolph Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Michael Brzezinski

Loretta Pettway Bennett, House Top, 2003

Cotton
157.5 x 170.2 cm (62 x 67 in)
Courtesy: © Loretta Pettway Bennett / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Qunnie Pettway, ‘Lazy Gal’ Variation, 2003

Corduroy
205.7 x 177.8 cm (81 x 70 in)
Courtesy: © Qunnie Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Qunnie Pettway, Four House Top, 2004

Corduroy and cotton
228.6 x 182.9 cm (90 x 72 in)
Courtesy: © Qunnie Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

Nancy Pettway, Housetop, 2004

Cotton
203.2 x 182.9 cm, 80 x 72 ins
Courtesy: © Nancy Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London; photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, IL / Art Resource, NY

  • Nettie Young, ‘Star’ – Ten-block Variation, 1937
  • Minder Coleman, ‘Log Cabin’ – ‘Courthouse Steps’ Variation (Local Name: ‘Bricklayer’), c.1940
  • Joerina C. Pettway, ‘Housetop’ – ‘Log Cabin’ Variation, c.1940
  • Rachel Carey George, ‘Star’ Variation Alternating with ‘Housetop’ Blocks, 1940s
  • Polly Bennett, Basket Weave, 1943
  • Rebecca Myles Jones, Center Medallion – Stacked Bricks with Checkerboard Frame, c.1950s
  • Loretta Pettway, ‘Log Cabin’ – Single Block ‘Courthouse Steps’ variation (Local Name: ‘Bricklayer’), 1959
  • Sue Willie Seltzer, Blocks, c.1965
  • Lutisha Pettway, ‘Housetop’ Variation with ‘Star’ Medallion, c.1975
  • Helen McCloud, ‘Bars’ Tied with Yarn, c.1980
  • Lucy Mingo, ‘Housetop’ – ‘Log Cabin’ Variation, c.1985
  • Essie Bendolph Pettway, Sallie, 1998
  • Loretta Pettway Bennett, House Top, 2003
  • Qunnie Pettway, ‘Lazy Gal’ Variation, 2003
  • Qunnie Pettway, Four House Top, 2004
  • Nancy Pettway, Housetop, 2004

Press

Review: The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers, Alison Jacques Gallery

Veronica Simpson, Studio International

January 2021

The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers are Masters of Their Craft

Tanya Harrod, Apollo

December 2020

The Alabama Quiltmakers Who Shook America

Claire Armitstead, The Guardian

December 2020

Southern Comforters

Amy Sherlock, The World of Interiors

November 2020

Quilty Pleasures: The Art of the Blanket

Victoria Woodcock, Financial Times: How To Spend It

September 2020

The Quilters of Gee’s Bend Are Using Their Sewing Skills to Make Facemasks

Taylor Dafoe, Artnet

April 2020

Can Gee’s Bend Rival Marfa?

Julia Halperin, Artnet

January 2020

Gee’s Bend Modern

Richard Kalina, Art in America

October 2003

Exhibitions

Freedom Quilting Bee

Online Exhibition19 March31 May 2021

The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers

2 December 202025 April 2021

Books

My Soul Has Grown Deep

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

2018

Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

Tinwood Books

2006

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend

Tinwood Books

2002

News

The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers: She Knew Where She Was Going

Baltimore Museum of Art

Sheila Hicks & The Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers

in Art Basel OVR: Portals