Landmark's Articles

Gee's Bend Quilters

The Gee's Bend Quilters Come to Town

It was Friday, September 23. Clouds moved in, puckered up and began to cry. The "Moody Blues" rock band could have been playing something appropriate for the dreariness outside —— that is until the real stars of this event walked in. About 6:15 p.m. five rays of southern sunshine swept into town to lighten things up, even though dusk had settled. Never heard of sunshine after dusk? Then you have never met the Gee"s Bend quilters.

The Gee's Bend Quilters: Ruth Lee Kennedy, Nancy Brown, Mary Ann Pettway, Revil Mosely. Sitting: Nancy Pettway

Boom Days in Fort Payne began that Friday and these gracious ladies had agreed to come to our small town to take part in the festivities in Union Park on Saturday, demonstration their quilting skills. The Chamber of Commerce welcomed them with a reception, and I was fortunate enough to get an invitation.

Nancy Pettway and Ruth Lee Kennedy work on a colorful quilt in Union Park during the Heritage Festival in Fort Payne.

Several examples of their quilts were on display. One could imagine how their sharp needles had pricked the strips of brilliant hues of fabric as they were fashioned into colorful quilts. The hearts of those attending were touched by the stories of the hardships and trials they faced growing up in Gee’s Bend.

Located in a remote area along the Alabama River, Gee’s Bend is home to a unique southern black culture, with a group of artists like no other. What motivated these women to dig deep into their beings to create works of art that now hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Life was hard at Gee’s Bend for this community of African-Americans who were descendents of slaves. A woman’s day was filled with hard labor caring for children, cooking, cleaning, and working in the fields of tenant farms. There were no conveniences, and Revil Mosely painted a picture of life in the family cabin. She remembered leaves blowing into the house from holes in the floor. Those same holes allowed wild animals to invade their living space. The only heat to warm the house came from a fireplace and a cooking stove.

Gee’s Bend Quilters display Revil Mosely’s quilt “Katrina”, done in memory of the hurricane.

Quilting served a dual purpose for the ladies of Gee’s Bend. It was a time of relaxation and fellowship when the chores were done. They could put away the cares of the day to sing and laugh as created something to keep the family warm when the cold wind blew through the cracks of the cabin. Sometimes their fingers would get so cold they would have to stand and warm them by the fireplace before returning to the quilting frame to stitch again.

These multitasking ladies were forced to be creative, as they had to use whatever material was available. They fashioned quilt tops from worn dresses, aprons, britches, bandanas, or any other scrap they could find. Many of the designs were linear, such as the quilt they called “House Top.”

As they sat and interacted with those attending the reception, humbly sharing their experiences, our spirits were lifted. Trials of the day seemed to float up and away as they spoke of their own hardships and tribulations. Suddenly, they stood and raised their voices in spiritual song in perfect harmony.

One question was answered unequivocally: Why are these ladies so popular all over America? They are genuine. They are the real thing. It radiates from their faces, and an aura of kindness encircles each and every one of these cheerful quilters as they carry on the traditions handed down from their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers.

Thank you, Ruth Lee Kennedy, Nancy Brown, Nancy Pettway, Revil Mosely, and Mary Ann Pettway for visiting our city, and sharing your experiences and your quilts with us.

We look forward to your coming again next year.

If you did not make it to Union Park or to the Chamber reception for these ladies, do make an effort to see their quilt masterpieces and get acquainted with them if you get that opportunity. In conjunction with the exhibition “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend”, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is a book that has been published with 195 illustrations of these wonderful works of art, 162 of them in full color. You can also read the history of Gee’s Bend and the quilters in this book. Published by Tinwood Books, Atlanta, in association with The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it would make a great addition to your library.