With these hands
A group of Alabama women, descended from slaves, took the scraps of their lives and pieced together American treasures
GEE'S BEND, Ala. -- It is just after sunrise, and the quilters of Gee's Bend are getting on another bus, this time to Memphis.
Unknown three years ago, they are celebrities now. Dozens of women from a poor, isolated, almost-forgotten African-American community whose quilting, now recognized as a remarkable artistic achievement, has propelled them to national acclaim.
On this February morning, they're headed to the opening of an exhibition of their quilts at a Memphis art museum. Soon, they'll be on their way to Boston, for the June 1 opening of their show at the Museum of Fine Arts.
When they depart Gee's Bend for Boston, pastor Clinton Pettway from Ye Shall Know the Truth Baptist Church plans to do what he always does when the women get ready to leave: ''Pray them off and pray them back."
''Lord been so good to us," Mary Lee Bendolph tells the pastor this morning, as some three dozen of the quilters, ages 43 to 87, climb aboard the bus, many with their hair freshly curled, Bendolph with her Bible, as always.
When everyone is seated, she leads the women in singing a favorite spiritual, and pastor Pettway begins to pray.
''Thank you Lord for waking us up in the morning," he says.
''Thank you Lord," the women respond, and bow their heads.
''Thank you God for another opportunity," he says. ''Thank you Lord for what you are doing for this community. Thank you Lord for finally beginning to bless their labors."
''Amen," the quilters say, raising their heads again, their voices lifted together as the bus disappears toward Wilcox County Road 29, away from the place you can't find on a map.
Just a few years ago, the quilts of Gee's Bend were all but forgotten, stashed under beds and in closets, given away, some of them so ''raggly," as they say here, they'd been torn up or burned. Most of the women, dispirited and uninspired, didn't even quilt anymore.
Now their quilts have hung in major museums around the country, including New York's Whitney Museum of American Art; The New York Times called them ''some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." They've gone to Washington, and Houston, even Kazakhstan and Armenia. The quilters have been on ''Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and have met Laura Bush and Jane Fonda. A host of retail products is on the market, inspired by their work.
Legions of visitors have flocked to museums to see the quilts, even setting new attendance records. They're lured by their raw, bold beauty, to be sure, but also the story behind them -- how practically everyone in Gee's Bend is descended from slaves; how the quiltmakers are part of an unbroken tradition of generations of quilters there; how their quilts were pieced together from scraps of fertilizer sacks, shirttails, worn-out overalls, tobacco pouches, and stuffed with the cotton they'd picked in the fields.
How somehow, incredibly, the hurried work of their hands turned into hundreds of bold, abstract, idiosyncratic, and joyous quilts that critics have compared to the work of Matisse, Mondrian, and Rothko.
It still seems unreal, no matter how many times Bendolph, 69, is asked to tell the story, no matter how many cities she visits or autographs she signs.
''All we knew was we was making quilts to keep warm," she keeps saying. ''We didn't know it was art."
There is many a place you can visit in this country and never get a hint of its past life, its ghosts, its soul. Gee's Bend isn't one of them.
To get here from Atlanta, you pass through Selma, a center of the civil rights struggle. Generations of ''Benders" subsisted as sharecroppers and tenant farmers for absentee white landlords, and you constantly bump up against vestiges of the region's history, which is not always pretty.
An area 5 miles across and 7 miles deep centered at the town of Boykin, 50 miles southwest of Selma, Gee's Bend sits at an abrupt U-shaped bend of the meandering Alabama River. It also owes its name to Joseph Gee, the area's first white settler.
The majority of residents bear the surnames of the white people who once owned their forebears -- Pettway, Young, Bendolph. ''We all got slave master's names," quilter Arlonzia Pettway explains. ''We all was something else."
About 700 residents live in the community, in a county in which 40 percent of the people live below the federal poverty line and the 16.4 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the state.
The fields alongside the long 18-mile stretch of road leading into Gee's Bend are littered with empty lots, rusted-out cars, the charred shells of houses on rubble. A ramshackle house trailer, with a hole in its sagging roof, has yet to be patched after a tree fell on it last year during Hurricane Ivan.
Much of the landscape is just emptiness interrupted by homes, and the occasional cow or goat. A lot of the dwellings are the tiny ''Roosevelt houses" built after the Depression when Gee's Bend was declared one of the poorest places in the United States and singled out for federal relief.
The town center, such as it is, is an intersection with a post office; the only evidence of the quiltmaking here is an unevenly lettered sign, ''Gee's Bend Quilt Coll." marking the building that houses the Gee's Bend Quilters Collective, founded in 2003 to represent the quilters and market their work.
Yet Gee's Bend, which has four churches despite its tiny population, is a rich artistic and spiritual universe. You hear it in the music of the morning mockingbirds and the woodpeckers -- or ''peckerwoods," to use Bendolph's more lyrical phrase. You hear it in the poetry of the names of the people who live here, or are buried here -- Creola, Mariah, Aolar, Wisdom, Arcola, Revil, Arlonzia.
You see it in the random tableaus you come across in unexpected places. A set of perfectly formed, fresh buzzard tracks embedded in mud. A rusty wash basin on a hook on Bendolph's woodshed, hanging with such precision and simplicity it could be a Walker Evans photograph.
Stories -- of racial politics, of poverty, of hard times, of faith -- are close to the surface, and spoken of frequently, especially now that outsiders are interested and ask.
There's the story of the ferry, for one. Decades ago there was a ferry that went from Gee's Bend to the white town of Camden, on the far side of the Alabama River, so that Benders could buy their groceries and borrow money.
But in 1965, the service was cut off when the people of Gee's Bend crossed over to vote and participated in civil-rights marches. After that they had to drive the 56 miles around the river to Camden, assuming they had a car, which few did.
''They cut off their own noses to spite their own faces," says Arlonzia Pettway. ''People still don't go to Camden to shop, they go to Selma."
Nettie Young, who is 87, tells about growing up in a house ''with a hole in the middle" and planks laid across the floor, and 20 people living inside. The wind blew so fiercely in the winter they would line the walls with pieces of newspaper, catalogs, whatever they could find, to keep the cold out. ''The first shoes I put on my feet, I was 12 years old," she says.
Babies came early to women in Gee's Bend, and often. Bendolph, who ''didn't get no further than sixth grade" had her first at 14, and seven more followed. Young had 11. Lola Pettway had 12; during one pregnancy, she barely managed to hold off delivering until she got her two sacks of cotton picked for the day.
And everyone remembers the midwives who were frequent visitors, and how hard it was to afford them, given they had so many babies and so little money. How did they pay?
''With a hog," says Lola Pettway.
''With a quilt," says Arlonzia Pettway. ''Anything."
Mary Lee Bendolph's first quilt wasn't made under such pressure. She started it when she was 12 and finished when she was 13 because it took her a whole year to find enough rags to piece it together.
''Any kind of piece you found, you picked it up and washed it, " says Young. ''When they started putting flour in sacks, and fertilizer, we took those sacks and made clothes. That was a big help."
''Old clothes, that's all I had," says Annie Mae Young, 75, mother of nine children. ''I just took the raggly parts off."
Ideas for quilts could come from anywhere. Nettie Young made a quilt about 35 years ago -- a searingly beautiful collage of celestially inspired geometric forms that she called ''Milky Way" -- and says, ''I just got the idea from the sky."
Arlonzia Pettway's quilt stories reach back the furthest. Pettway is one of four women who meet several mornings a week at a senior center to make quilts, and also to sing -- sacred hymns and spirituals that were improvised decades ago on plantations and got passed along.
They make the quilts much the same way they always have, except now they stuff the insides with batting from
A tall, regal-looking woman born in 1923, Arlonzia Pettway has a story that seems so sorrowful even Bendolph has said, ''When she first started telling me that, I thought she was wrong."
Pettway says quilting started in her family with her great grandmother Dinah, who was born in Africa and was captured at 14 -- she was lured onto a slave ship, which was decorated with red ribbons and red lights because ''they thought African people liked the color red." The ship landed in Mobile in 1859.
''She was told she was bought for a price. She cost one dime," Pettway says. ''One ten-cents."
Pettway was 7 when her great grandmother died, but she remembers Dinah's stories about making quilts in secret from torn-up old clothes, crouching in ditches with tree brush over her. ''They was in slavery," says Pettway. ''They worked all day, then they'd go under the pile of brushes, and set the log down to sit on and make a quilt. The slave masters didn't allow them to piece a quilt. They didn't want them to do nothing, they didn't want them to learn how to write, they didn't want them to have no beautiful quilts, they didn't want them to have no correct language. That's what she told me."
Everyone seems to agree: Life changed in Gee's Bend because of Annie Mae Young's quilt, the one made out of torn-up pieces of denim work pants.
In 1998, a man named Bill Arnett happened to see a photograph of it in a book about African-American quilters published in 1996; the quilt -- with a vividly colored center medallion made of strips of corduroy -- was unceremoniously draped over a woodpile where Young, standing in the foreground, was airing it out.
Arnett is a prodigious art collector, scholar, and founder of the Tinwood Alliance, a nonprofit foundation based in Atlanta for the support of African-American vernacular art. For 20 years, he'd traveled around the South scouting art made by unknown African-American visual artists. In 1996, he started working on a two-volume set of books on the subject, ''Souls Grown Deep." It was published by Tinwood Books, which Arnett cofounded with Jane Fonda, a financial partner.
The quilt was unlike anything Arnett had ever seen, and he lost no time tracking Young down. ''I had no idea when I went to see Annie Mae's quilt that it would open up what it did," he says.
It opened up a world of women who had been making quilts most of their lives and ''didn't think anyone in the world would appreciate what they were doing," says Arnett, who now works with his four sons on Atlanta-based Tinwood ventures, including organizing quilt exhibitions and trips and overseeing retail projects. Young introduced him to other Gee's Bend women, who showed him their own quilts, hauling them out of storage rooms and bedrooms where they'd kept them between the springs and mattresses to make their beds softer.
The more quilts he saw, the more quilters he met, and he began to understand the significance of the fact that quiltmaking in Gee's Bend had remained more or less intact over nearly two centuries with just a few mutations. ''It became obvious that we'd stumbled upon one of the great art-producing communities that I'm aware of," Arnett says.
At first, he thought he would write a book about the quilts, but the plan got more ambitious after he consulted Jane Livingstone and John Beardsley, art historians who had written for his ''Souls Grown Deep" books. Beardsley, a senior lecturer at Harvard Design School, recalls being dazzled by them. ''They were thematically distinct, they were geographically distinct, they had a kind of coherence, and the quilts were just plain amazing," he says.
Eventually Livingstone and Beardsley curated the show, which appeared first at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts in 2002 and has been to eight US cities. The exhibition continues to draw huge crowds, including an uncommon mix of African-American and white visitors, and ''people with berets and black sweaters," says Paul Arnett, coauthor, with his father Bill, of two books about Gee's Bend.
Even more unexpected is that the success of the show has inspired a renaissance of quiltmaking in Gee's Bend. When Bill Arnett first visited Gee's Bend, it was a dying art. Only five or six women were still making quilts, and few were making more than two or three a year.
''I can tell you a lot of the people in Gee's Bend was slowly dying and had nothing in their life to look forward to," says Rubin Bendolph, a Huntsville engineer who grew up in Gee's Bend. He's the son of Mary Lee and the sister of Essie Bendolph Pettway, another quiltmaker.
''Quilting got reenergized, after so many of the women saw the way they were being received," says another of Bill's sons, Matt Arnett, who acts as a liaison for the Atlanta-based Tinwood organization between the Gee's Bend community and the art world.
Currently, the Gee's Bend Quilters Collective, consisting of about 50 quilters, is marketing the women's quilts on a website (www.quiltsofgeesbend.com), for an average price of $3,000. A Manhattan gallery specializing in contemporary American art, Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, will be exhibiting the work of about a dozen of the quiltmakers beginning later this month, and selling others.
Meanwhile, the exhibition has fueled a veritable Gee's Bend industry -- rugs, bedding, stationery. Half of the money from the sale of quilts sold by the collective goes to the quilter who made it; the other half is divided among its members. The quilters also receive royalties from the licensed products.
All of this has helped improve the material life of many of the quilters. Loretta Pettway and Arlonzia Pettway have added on to their homes. Mary Lee Bendolph has renovated a guest house next to hers, where she puts up visitors. The Ye Shall Know the Truth Baptist Church is called by some ''the church that quilts built," because of all the money that quilters contributed to erect it.
Not that Gee's Bend is thriving economically. Quiltmaking hasn't created jobs. While some of the quilters may not need to buy their groceries on credit anymore, their grandchildren are still bused 100 miles round trip to the middle school and high school because the school in Gee's Bend was closed when desegregation came. There are still no health-care services to speak of in Gee's Bend; you have to drive more than 50 miles to a dentist or doctor or pharmacy.
''The Gee's Bend women go around the country and are treated like movie stars, and then they come back and kind of fade into the woodwork," says James Emerson, chairman of the Wilcox County Industrial Development Authority, a consortium of business and civic leaders.
Something has changed for the women, though.
''The quilts have made a difference in the way I see myself getting up in the world," says Arlonzia Pettway.
She woke up one morning in February and for the first time in her life wrote a poem. It begins:
Never make a path somebody else made.
First you make your own path.
Great grandmama Dinah walked this path
With her quilt pieces and her thimble and a needle in her hand.
But she never reached the intersection.
She passed on.
Mary Lee Bendolph experiences the world differently, too. ''I go places I used to couldn't go," she says.
''Everything just opened up for us, even Camden," her daughter Essie adds, speaking of the town across the river where years ago her mother watched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. brazenly drink from the ''whites only" fountain in the courthouse.
''They still kind of down, but not as down as they used to be," says Mary Lee. ''They don't shut you up so bad anymore."
Bendolph moves fast these days, with a sense of urgency, because there is so much to do.
Her bus trip to Memphis is the beginning of a frenetic travel schedule. Within a few weeks, she'll be visiting Chicago twice and other parts of Alabama. Then it's New York, and home for a week before getting ready for Boston and the MFA.
''It's a blessing to have some place to go, to meet people and see how friendly and nice they are," she says. ''When they meet me they think I'm up in the world. They want to touch me and they want to hug me, and I be the same way towards them."
Probably the most joyful part of it all is that she's quilting again. The morning before the bus trip, she was up with the peckerwoods, to pack. Then she crossed the field to Essie's house to borrow the quilting frame, because she'd just finished piecing together a new design.
It's made from fabric scraps, as always. ''I don't like buying fabric to make quilts with," Bendolph says firmly. ''I was brought up to make quilts from rags."
Soon it's time for noonday prayer at the church, and that evening there's a meeting she's invited to, with some other quilters -- in Camden -- to talk with people from the business community about ways to bring tourists into Wilcox County.
The next morning, she and the other quilters are off to Memphis, a seven-hour bus trip away.
''I know you have a long journey," pastor Clinton Pettway says as he prays them off. ''Lord, bring the bus back to Gee's Bend, safe and sound."
''Amen," the quilters say.
The Quilts of Gee's Bend will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts from June 1 through August 21. In conjunction with the exhibition, there will be a Memorial Day open house on May 30; the MFA will be open free to the public from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., and quilters from Gee's Bend will be on hand to talk about their quilts. On June 1, the quilters participate in a panel discussion at 7 p.m. in the Remis Auditorium. Tickets to the panel discussion are $18 for the public, $15 for MFA members. Call 617-369-3306 or visit www.mfa.org.
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com.