Sunday, October 23, 2011

Gee's Bend Quilters Lecture

I am so very happy that I had the opportunity to attend a talk given by three Gee's Bend Quilters and Matt Arnett. Matt and his dad are art historians and are credited with "discovering" the quilts of Gee's Bend.

Matt described some of the history of Gee's Bend, the extreme poverty of that former slave trading post (though official records confirming that are unsurprisingly unavailable), and the first exhibits. He then introduced the quilters, Revil Mosley, China Pettway and Louisiana Bendolph, and they each spoke in turn. Before they spoke, though, China and Revil sang a beautiful gospel/spiritual song and indeed there was a lot more song throughout the evening.

Each woman represented a generation, and each shared stories of her past, all of which included very rough times, hunger, cold, racism, and faith. The deep and abiding faith, particularly of Revil and China was front and centre and extremely genuine. That was definitely a memorable part of the talk.

There were photos of quilts, and some photos of the Gee's Bend community. There were also many stories and photos of the first Gee's Bend exhibit.

The audience was able to ask questions, and there was a great question about how these women's husbands and sons felt about them leaving Gee's Bend for the tours and these lectures. The response was interesting - that the support of husbands definitely ranged from "not at all" to "extremely" and Matt made an extremely interesting point about how the financial gain from the sale of their quilts has caused some imbalance in some households where one quilt might sell for more than that quilter's husband makes in a year.

China told a story of her brother making her a pair of shoes from a pasteboard box, and her family using quilts to insulate the walls against the winter cold. Revil took up the microphone right after that and commented that at least the windows in China's house had windowpanes - her family home didn't!

Louisiana, who was born in 1960, experienced an effectively segregated school system insofar as that part of Alabama didn't have desegregated schools until the 1970s - well after Brown vs. The Board of Education had changed the law. Incredible.

Even after all that's changed in Gee's Bend since the world discovered it just over 10 years ago, the quiltmakers there continue to make quilts to be used, to keep their families warm. The art of these quilts persists but it is absolutely inseparable from their utility. When someone asked a question about design decisions, Matt related a story about how it took him a long time to really get the quilters to acknowledge that they were producing art and not "just" quilts for use - finally one quilter answered his question about why she didn't just use one piece of orange in that one spot but rather cut it up and put it in various places and she responded something like, "Well, I wanted it to look good!"

The talk was inspiring and I had tears in my eyes more than once. I was completely star struck and could barely croak out a "thank you" when I went to the table to meet the quilters. I do hope this video gives you a little taste of the personality of these awesome women (l-r as the video begins) China, Revil and Louisiana.

Go here to learn more about these fabulous quilts and quilters - even a google search of "quilts of Gee's Bend" comes up with so much great stuff!


  1. Ok Rainman, how'd you remember all that stuff - I certainly didn't see a notebook in your hands!! I wish you were coming tomorrow - I'll tell you all about it soon.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this, Felicity, this is really cool. I especially loved the part you relayed about how they don't really see their work as art, that's just amazing. Love the video, too!

  3. I was so sad that I couldn't make it to this, but I'm glad you were there to relay it back to us! :)

  4. Hi Felicity, it's Susie (southern gal there w/Krista!). Thank you for sharing that amazing summary! You definitely have a great memory, and a gift for capturing the feeling of the event. Beautiful.

  5. Beautiful post. It sounds like an incredible evening!

  6. I love their quilts! They look "wiggly" to me. Also, to see the hands behind the work is amazing. Thank you so much for posting this.


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