Arlonzia Pettway says she has made more than 2,000 quilts in her lifetime, but she still remembers her first one.
When she was 6 years old, Pettway’s grandmother brought home a quilt from Africa. Pettway remembered the beauty of that quilt and wanted to recreate it. When she was 9, her mother gave her old strips of clothing to design a quilt for herself.
Because she was busy at school, Pettway had to wait for her mother and aunt to sew her design together. It took two months. Finally, one day after school, she got to see the finished piece.
“I just enjoyed seeing my quilt so much,” she said.
Some of Pettway’s quilts are featured in “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” an exhibit opening Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Organized by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibit showcases 70 quilts made from the 1930s to 2000 in the isolated, mostly black town of Gee’s Bend, Ala.
“There are very few today left in the world like this,” said William Arnett, an art scholar who helped uncover the quilts in 1997. “But there must have been millions.”
Quiltmaking in Gee’s Bend, population 700, goes back generations. Surrounded by a curve in the Alabama River, the rural town is home to the descendants of former slaves who live and work on former plantation land. Even today, Gee’s Bend sits an hour away from the nearest town and remains one of the poorest regions in the nation.
Despite the hardships, these circumstances have kept the tradition of quiltmaking alive.
“We didn’t know our quilts were artwork,” Pettway said. “We just enjoyed making our quilts.”
Both men and women use everyday fabrics such as denim and cotton sheets to create the quilts, which often feature sharp, vibrant colors and abstract designs. The pieces are so unique that they draw more comparisons to modern art rather than traditional Western quilts.
The quilts can take anywhere from a few days to a few months to create, although Pettway said on average it takes five to 12 days. A two-step process, quilters will first use clothing scraps to create and sew together a design and then will meet in groups to sew the interior together.
While quilters rarely sketch out a design on paper beforehand, they often think of the design in advance before making the quilt, said Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator of the exhibit at the Corcoran.
“They demonstrate such an extra level of mastery of color and design,” Serwer said.
When quilters go to work on their pieces, they often match up scraps of clothing to form patterns and designs. Some patterns obviously match one another, while others are more abstract.
“I make ‘em like a pattern,” said Mary Lee Bendolph, whose quilts are featured in the exhibit along with quilts from other members of her family. “It’ll be stylish when I make it.”
Stained or torn pieces of clothing are rarely thrown away — quiltmakers just fit stains into the pattern for unique designs.
“Every quiltmaker has her own style,” Arnett said. “They are very distinct.”
Pettway, however, said that making a quilt is not about matching patterns. For her, it comes from within.
“It’s just an act of God,” Pettway said. “The Lord gave us the knowledge to do it.”
Despite the recent praise from the art community that the quilts have gotten, within Gee’s Bend the quilts have served as a necessity.
“They were made just to keep warm,” Bendolph said.
On special occasions, such as birthdays or weddings, quilts served as presents.
“We came up the hard way,” Bendolph said. “We would give people a quilt as a gift because we didn’t have any money.”
Complementing the quilts at the exhibit is a display of 32 photos taken of Gee’s Bend during the Great Depression. In 1937, photographers Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Wolcott were sent by the Farm Security Administration to document the daily life of the black tenant farmers there.
The photos spawned financial assistance to the area. In 1939, Wolcott returned to Gee’s Bend to photograph the residents in their new school, stores and homes.
“So many of the people in these pictures are relatives of the quilters,” Serwer said.
Arnett said he sees the photographs as an expression of the people who inhabit the town.
“Gee’s Bend is a tiny little isolated community that has indeed presented some of the greatest art in American history,” he said.
Much of the money from the financial assistance disappeared by the 1960s, around the time that retailers such as Sears Roebuck & Co. began featuring the quilts in stores across the United States.
Known as the “Freedom Quilting Bee,” the quilters were employed to make the quilts and were paid a stipend for their efforts. The Bee brought some money back into the community, although there were problems.
The stores often wanted quilts to have the same styles, going against the creativity of the quiltmaking process. The Bee soon folded.
“It was a good idea,” Arnett said. “But it totally shattered what these women did.”
Pettway said that the process itself was difficult. The quilters rarely knew when money would come in.
“I worked for two months and I didn’t get paid,” Bendolph said.
Plus, if the stitching was crooked, stores would send the quilts back.
Now, however, some of the quilt designs are getting another chance at the commercial market. The New York company Classic Rug Collection Inc. is selling handmade floor rugs based on the quilt designs.
Some of the proceeds from the rugs are expected to go to Gee’s Bend to help build a museum and community center.
Regardless of the attention they have received in recent years, Bendolph and Pettway said when they go home to Gee’s Bend, they will get back to what they have always done: making quilts.
“It was just built in me to go, go, go all the time,” Bendolph said.
“The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” runs through May 17 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 639-1703.