Gee's Bend Quilts

by Warren Denney

The quilts that illustrate this boxed set were made by residents of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. These images are used with permission of the quiltmakers, or their estates, and bring a supportive and tangible depth to the story told in this collection.

The residents of Gee’s Bend (located about eighty-five miles west of Montgomery) are direct descendants of enslaved people who worked the cotton plantation established in 1816 by Joseph Gee. The community’s tradition of quiltmaking survived much—the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, the Great Depression, the Great Migration—as many descendants worked the land, initially in bondage, then as poorly paid sharecroppers, and eventually as landowners through federal government programs.

Martha Jane Pettway (1898 – 2003)
Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt,1920s
Cotton, denim, and corduroy, 67 x 72 inches
©2023 Estate of Martha Jane Pettway / ARS, New York

Just as Black country musicians and singers produced remarkable work in the face of adversity during this time period, so too the local women of Gee’s Bend brought their artistic talents together to establish the Freedom Quilting Bee, a workers cooperative that provided much-needed economic opportunity and political empowerment for their community. The quiltmakers would find comfort and inspiration through singing, primarily spirituals and gospel music, as they worked with their hands. Music, at its core, is a universal kinship.

Lottie Mooney (1908 – 1992)
“Housetop” – four-block “Half-Log Cabin” variation, c. 1940
Cotton and rayon, 88 x 73 inches
©2023 Estate of Lottie Mooney / ARS, New York

The community’s unique patchwork quilting tradition, born in the nineteenth century, endures. The Gee’s Bend quilts constitute a crucial chapter in the history of American art and have been featured in exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Whitney Museum of American Art; and the Royal Academy of Art in London, and can be found in the permanent collections of numerous leading art museums worldwide.

Arcola Pettway (1934 – 1994)
“Lazy Gal” (“Bars”) variation, 1976
Corduroy, 81 x 89 inches
©2023 Estate of Arcola Pettway / ARS, New York

Works featured within this boxed set are from the following artists: Loretta Pettway Bennett, whose cotton and twill creation “Medallion” from 2005 forms the foundation of our cover; Martha Jane Pettway, whose workclothes quilt was made from denim and corduroy in the 1920s; Lottie Mooney, with her cotton and rayon “Housetop” – four-block “Half-Log Cabin” variation (c. 1940); and Arcola Pettway, with the “Lazy Gal” (“Bars”) variation, made from corduroy in 1976.

Loretta Pettway Bennett (b. 1960)
“Medallion,” 2005
Cotton and twill, 88 x 63 inches
©2023 Loretta Pettway Bennett / ARS, New York

The type treatment for the title of this musical collection was created by David Jon Walker, a graphic artist and Fulbright Scholar with a graduate degree in graphic design from Yale School of Art, in collaboration with Heather Moulder of Hatch Show Print. The original work is a hand-carved linoleum cut. Walker is an Associate Professor of Art at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.