The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, black community in Alabama—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present.
Resembling an inland island, Gee’s Bend is surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The seven hundred or so inhabitants of this small, rural community are mostly descendants of slaves, and for generations they worked the fields belonging to the local Pettway plantation. Quiltmakers there have produced countless patchwork masterpieces beginning as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, with the oldest existing examples dating from the 1920s.
Enlivened by a visual imagination that extends the expressive boundaries of the quilt genre, these astounding creations constitute a crucial chapter in the history of African American art.
Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves.
Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’sBend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages.
Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair—quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants.
THESE ARE SOME OF MY FAVORITE QUILTS FROM GEE'S BEND ...
who could have produced these works of modern art?
(1916 - 2010)
After her mother’s death, Nettie Young’s father married her friend, quiltmaker Deborah Young. At age eighty-five, Nettie Young continues to tend to the farmlands surrounding her home, one of the original “project houses” built in the late 1930s.
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I was raised up in a place they called Young’s, the old Young plantation. My daddy’s father had been a slave named Irby but was sold to the Pettways, so my daddy was named Pettway, same as all the others owned by the Pettways. Daddy had lived down in the Bend. When he got grown he was free from the Pettway ownership and could go where he wanted to go, and he went up to the Young plantation to work. He farmed up there—you called it sharecropping, what he did. Later on, he got where he could rent the land, but that wasn’t much better.
I grew up in the renting time. Then when I got married we did some rent farming from the Wilkinsons. They had bought all the land around up there. Then we moved down to this house in 1945. Old Man Wilkinson had bought this house in a auction and wanted my husband, Clint Young, to live in it. We was living up in Wilkinson’s pasture in a common wooden shack, and this house was a whole improvement. So, Old Man Wilkinson sold it to us for $4,000, higher than the cost was supposed to be, thinking we’d fall behind and he could take it back. But we was able to keep up the payments, and later on, the government, the FHA, give us the loan, so we was able to get the house and keep the house ever since.
I started working quilts when I was a child. My mother would have me sit with her, and I was watching her and putting scraps together, doing like she was doing. She’d drop those scraps at her feet, and I’d be picking them up. My mama looked at that thing and told me I did good. I felt good, like I had done a big job. I always loved sewing. I made all my children’s clothes. Didn’t need a pattern. Same with quilts. If I seen a dress or a quilt or something I liked, I can make it. I just draw it out the way I want it. In the quilting bee time, I started using patterns, but I shouldn’t have did it. It broke the ideas I had in my head. I should have stayed with my own ideas.
I kept making quilts all the way up to last year. I still got the feeling every now and then to sew, but I just don’t have the mind to do it now. My hands are good, but I ain’t quite got the spirit—not like before, when I’m always ready, day and night. Age got me."
photo by Linda Day Clark, 2003
In 2002, as a freelancer, I was assigned by the New York Times to photograph the women of Gee's Bend Alabama for a story on their amazing quilts. Their quilt work had just broken the boundaries of craft, and soared into the realm of fine art with rave reviews. Of their Whitney Museum of American Art quilt exhibition, the New York Times wrote that the quilts, originally made for warmth, turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. The art critic went on to say that this maybe the last moment to record and celebrate what is one of the countries most idiosyncratic and vivid living art traditions. I agree, but I also see a much bigger, more culturally significant story. It's a compelling mix of the tragic, triumphant, and genius. These qualities have been acknowledged in their artwork, but I see it manifest in other significant and ways.
So, in 2003, I went back on my own, stayed with the quilters and began to piece it together. Most of the people have lived there all their lives. They are proud landowners, born to the sharecroppers, born to the slaves, who originally inhabited the plantations of Gee's Bend. Generation after generation has stayed, and until now, few outsiders have moved in. This has helped to create a surprisingly complex and unique way of life. They have weathered slavery and can tell the story of the middle passage from first hand accounts of blood relatives. They survived the injustices of the sharecropping system, the perils of the depression, and the powerful racism that stranded them on the bend of the Alabama River.