Spotlight: The Gee’s Bend Quilts

Gee’s Bend is a small piece of land, surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. In this location, a community have crafted quilts for decades. In 1966, 150 quilt-makers in the rural area formed the Freedom Quilting Bee co-operative. In light of the Civil Rights Movement, this co-op represented a chance to earn a living from the creative output being generated. This collective approach was led by makers Callie Young and Estelle Witherspoon. However, as Linda Hunt Beckham suggests in her article Quilt Story: Black Rural Women, White Urban Entrepreneurs, And The American Dream there is a tension between the maker’s output and the power dynamics of the contemporary art world. Something the quilters are currently seeking to rectify. Although there has been some financial reimbursement and a larger audience for their work they have also impacted by the shady dealings of art-world gate keeper Bill Arnett. Arnett has historically decided which of the Gee’s Bend quilts have ‘artistic merit’ (unsurprisingly the one’s his family owns make the cut and which spoke reductively to ‘modernist’ sensibilities) and has simplistically painted the community as an ‘unchanging’ backwater. But there has been innovation and engagement with the political nature of their work. The Gee’s Bend tradition has been carried on by women like Loretta P. Bennett, whose mother introduced her to quilt-making. Her contemporary take on the quilt uses bold, sparse geometric shapes, hot pinks and cobalt blues, and materials like corduroy and velveteen, as in the piece ‘Two Sided Geometric Quilt‘. The Gee’s Bend quilts are emblems of a tradition of women’s craft, community creativity and Civil Rights.

I came to realize that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and piece a quilt together.

– Loretta P. Bennett
Housetop and Bricklayer with Bars quilt , ca. 1955 by Lucy T. Pettway, Gee’s Bend, Alabama 
Photo credit: Regan Vercruysse
Blocks and Strips, 2002 by Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Photo Credit: Collection of Tinwood Alliance © 2007

‘I never thought that a quilt would be in the art world. People would think that was beautiful, that something we’d done could be shown all over the world and people get joy out of it’

– Essie Pettway
Housetop Variation with Half-square Blocks, 2003, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Credit: Collection of Tinwood Alliance © 2007
Pieced Quilt, c. 1979 by Lucy Mingo, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Denim and Corduroy blocks quilt, n.d. by Flora Moore, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Photo Credit: Gina Pina
Roman Stripes Variation, 1975, by Willie “Ma Willie” Abrams, Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Photo Credit: Rocor

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