Mary Pettway is not concerned with being called an artist. She is one of a community of women based in the Alabama town of Gee’s Bend, a narrow, remote peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. For the last hundred years, these women have made quilts that translate dreams, feelings, and experiences into geometric patterns and—to many modern-day devotees—art. The Gee’s Bend quilt makers blend geometry, improvisation, and abstract interpretations of the world around them. They make, as Mary says, “not art, but something different, something you can live with.”
Gee’s Bend is a close community. Many of its members are descendants of the enslaved people who had lived on the Pettway plantation, and past and present quilt makers include Annie Bendolph, Eddie Lee Pettway Green, and Nellie Mae Abrams. Since the early 1900s, the women of Gee’s Bend have crafted what they call “My Way” quilts, improvised textiles that take on whatever design the quilt maker sees fit once she begins stitching. These women practiced abstract expressionism at a time when the art world largely excluded them and, like many of the great women abstract expressionists, worked consistently and relentlessly despite the demands of childcare and full-time jobs, and despite a total lack of status and regard. Mary’s mother was Lucy T. Pettway, one of the most famous quilters of the Alabama River region, who taught Mary how to quilt at nine years old. “She would have been a millionaire now,” Mary says, referencing the recent attention Gee’s Bend quilts have attracted.
Mary is less concerned with the art industry than she is the principles of her practice. “If I see something that interests me, then I’ll do something on it. It’s kind of like a puzzle. I’ll do it because a subject piques my interest. Simple.”
The Gee’s Bend quilt makers turn experiences, ideas, emotions, and sometimes dreams into cloth abstractions that by now have formed a huge body of work. “Housetop” quilts—tessellated layers of scrap fabric laid over and into one another—are a trademark of Gee’s Bend. The aesthetic is broad-ranging, from minimalist geometry in the 1950s to the orange and green rectangular corduroy quilts of the 1970s. It was then that tourists started visiting Gee’s Bend, initially stopping off to buy fresh eggs, collard greens, squash, and tomatoes and, eventually, quilts, too. Gee’s Bend makers now craft quilts to hang on walls, beds, and chairs as well as coasters and pandemic-inspired face masks.
Mary usually quilts in solitude—“the best type of silence,” she says—using fabric found at Goodwill and the Salvation Army, or personal offcuts. Like each of the Gee’s Bend quilt makers, her stitch is flawless. “All my stitches match perfectly,” she says. “They have to be nice and short with no thread left fraying or sticking out.”
Gee’s Bend itself is a huge inspiration to Mary. Like many during lockdown, Mary found nature inspiring. “If you want peace and solitude, this is pretty much the place to be. It’s quiet. There’s very little action. Whatever you’re looking for, ask and someone will point you in the right direction. There’s no other place like it in the world.”
Grace Banks is a London-based journalist and editor. She is the author of Play With Me: Dolls - Women - Art.
Photography by Stacy K. Allen.