Loretta Pettway Bennett remembers when everything changed for her tight-knit rural community. The 20th century was drawing to a close. She was in her thirties and lived with her husband and sons on the site of a former cotton plantation on a deep bend in the Alabama River. All of her free time was spent sewing quilts alongside her grandmother, mother and aunt, stacking on beds or hanging on walls to keep the humid air from the river from winding between them. logs from the walls of their cabin.
Then in 1997 came a collector who started buying the quilts for crazy money, and seeing them as works of art worth showing in museums. “It seemed like a good idea, but at the time we didn’t believe it. Who would want to see those old shredded quilts? Pettway Bennett said. Until then, quilts could sell for a few dollars apiece, a pretty handy boost to the economy of the hamlet of 200 people, which had been identified decades earlier as part of the poorest region in the States. United. Renamed Boykin in the 1940s, he was still known locally by his name from the slave days of Gee’s Bend.
The collector was Bill Arnett, a white freewheeling enthusiast who specialized in what he called “black vernacular art”. Five years later, he has proven his point. An exhibition was mounted at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which one of the curators involved in research and staging predicted “would change the history of art.” The 2002 exhibition would continue in New York City and 11 other cities across the United States, presenting connoisseurs with surprising evidence that women cut off from international art movements were creating works that, as the New York Times notes, were equal to whatever Klee or Matisse.
Pettway Bennett was among the quilters who were driven on buses for the launch of the exhibit, where they were treated like royalty and entertained the cosmopolitan arts crowd with “songs of sorrow” from their devout plantation culture. . A documentary made at the time captures the two-way excitement of the occasion – quilters who had never set foot in a gallery before marveling at their own work on the walls, and viewers moved to tears by her art and its cultural significance. “That art is so full of love, patriotism and hope is very moving,” said Jane Fonda, who is one of their oldest champions, and was briefly married to Arnett’s son, Matt. “The rest of us can get cynical and angry, but these people, of all people, should be and aren’t.”
Love and hope are all great, but Pettway Bennett – like all quilters – was also a pragmatist. Upon her return from Houston, she got down to business, picking up every piece of denim she could find in the clothes her husband and sons had abandoned or grown up on, to capitalize on this sudden success. The resulting quilt – a crazy tessellation of patch pockets and scuffed knees completed in 2003 – now hangs at the Alison Jacques Gallery in London in what is believed to be the first European exhibition dedicated to the work of Gee’s Bend quilters.
The 13 quilts in the exhibit cover 90 years in the lives of six families, many of whom named Pettway in honor of the 19th-century landowner who transported their ancestors to Gee’s Bend to work on his cotton plantation. The oldest was made by Annie E Pettway in 1930, when the price of cotton plummeted, reducing the community to such a shortage that it had to be fed by the Red Cross. Its dark colors – typical of the era – contrast sharply with the geometric exuberance of the one achieved by Annie’s daughter, Rita Mae, in 2019. Both are built in a ‘block style’ which is one of the standards. design on which expert quilters improvised.
Pettway Bennett started learning to sew quilts when he was five or six years old. “As a little kid, we had the job of threading needles, and they let us practice on real little pieces just to keep our hands busy,” she says. She finished her first solo effort one summer when she was about 13, “but it was all out of balance and my mom finished it. It was given to one of his brothers who has no memory of it. He probably used it to work on a car, which was the fate of many quilts that got old and tattered, she says.
Arnett was motivated in his quest for African American art by the belief that there had to be a visual equivalent of jazz and blues. When he arrived at Gee’s Bend, he found fabulous improvisations hidden under mattresses. Legend has it that a quilter burned his entire collection just a week before his arrival.
Presenting the historical exhibit catalog, art historian Alvia Wardlaw – now director of the Texas Southern University Museum – captured the emotion of the occasion. Quilts, she writes, were created “between picking cotton, braiding hair, soothing the wrinkled forehead of an overworked husband… [Each] is a bold declaration of independence, almost provocative in a sense, for amidst the epic almost tragic sagas of poverty and misery, [its maker] had the audacity to create something shiny and beautiful that has never been seen before and will never be seen again quite this way, and it’s all hers, it came out of her own head under a bandana under a blazing sun.
Eighteen years later, halfway across the world, quilts still carry an emotional punch, each carrying stories that are both unique to them and reflecting a larger story. The fabric on several is worn to reveal plush linings made from fibers taken from ginning factories where raw cotton has been combed without seeds. Those from the 1970s were often made from scraps of corduroy – like Qunnie’s ‘Housetop’ – after a cooperative formed to provide paid work for women won a contract with retailer Sears to produce corduroy pillows. .
Many also wear stains reminiscent of past lives in family homes; one of them has a small blue ink stain that could have been left by a child doing homework in bed. “Normally this type of mark would be removed as part of the conservation process, but they are part of the autobiography of these quilts,” says Robinson, who hopes that major European museums will take an interest in the quilts. A private collector has already bought one for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and Tate is considering two more.
Quilters’ relationship with the international art market has, perhaps inevitably, had its hiccups. Arnett, who died this summer, has been repeatedly accused of exploiting them. A fraud lawsuit brought against him by the families of two Gee’s Bend quilters was dismissed in 2007. It’s a charge that Pettway Bennett strongly disputes today. “I think the intentions were good, but I don’t think the quilters’ children understood what he did for us,” she says. The London exhibition is a collaboration with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which Arnett set up to safeguard his collection. Its website celebrates the lives of more than 120 Gee’s Bend quilters whose work Arnett has purchased over the years.
It’s lunchtime during the Thanksgiving vacation when I phone Pettway Bennett, and she hurries to put out the fire on the food she’s cooking for the three young men in her family. It’s not the turkey: no, no, no, she said. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses, so don’t have a truck with national celebrations. She was widowed a few years ago and recently moved to a smaller house, so she hasn’t stung for a while, but she hopes to return once she’s settled down. There isn’t a lot of quilting among the younger generations, she says – at 60, she’s the youngest in the series. They all still have quilts on their beds, “but our homes are better insulated now, so the quilts are just for decoration.”