For over 10 years I've had "Visit Gee's Bend" on my Explore the South bucket list. And this week, I marked that item off my bucket list! While vacationing in my home state of Alabama, I was joined by my mom as we drove from Birmingham to the Black Belt region of the state to Gee's Bend (known now as Boykin, Alabama). Gee's Bend is a large bend in the Alabama River. There are about 700 residents in this small, remote, community and most are descendants of slaves. Few people have ever moved out of Gee's Bend and few have ever moved in. This community has overcome hard times again and again. You can read the history of Gee's Bend here so you can understand why the residents have such vivid stories to tell through their quilts.
For generations the women of Gee's Bend have created quilt masterpieces. The women of Gee's Bend quilt in an improvisational style that is unique in the traditional American quilting world, transforming recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants into works of art. Their voice and their personal stories come through in each piece they create. Quilter, Revil Mosely, once mentioned in an interview that she was taught to quilt by her grandmother. While learning from her, she pricked her finger and bled and she was crying over the pain. Her grandmother told her that she had to learn that that's how life is going to be, "you might get hurt but you got to go ahead on."
The Gee's Bend masterpieces date back to the early 20th century and were brought into the mainstream art world by writer, artist collector and curator, William Arnett who saw a photo of one of the Gee's Bend quilts and tracked down the quilters because he fell in love with their work! In 2002, Arnett arranged the first influential exhibition of the Gee's Bend quilts at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The Quilts of Gee's Bend collection has since been shown at museums of art across the United States. In August of 2006, the United States Postal Service released commemorative Quilts of Gee's Bend stamps that helped garner more attention for the women and their work.
After the stamps were released an artist painted a mural based on each of the 10 stamps and those murals became the Gee's Bend Quilting Trail. You can drive the trail and when you do I highly encourage you stop by the Quilter's Collective that is open by appointment.
Mary Ann Pettway manages the collective and spends much of her time here, with her fellow quilters, creating masterpieces. My mom and I arranged to meet Mary Ann on a Saturday morning and when we arrived we met Mary Ann Pettway and Nancy Pettway, who were so warm, kind and generous with their time and willingness to share about their work and the history of the quilters. We were giddy like little kids to meet these women who are like celebrities to us. These women, and generations before them, are Alabama treasures!
I asked Mary Ann about the year Mr. Arnett discovered Gee's Bend and the quilts and she laughed and said it was like "a good bomb going off" because it set in motion the chance to share their work with an audience that they never would have imagined would see what they do. Mary Ann and Nancy loved showing off the quilts they were working on and the quilts they have available to purchase in their store. And they loved pointing out that there are tiny signatures that are quilted into each piece that you may not even notice unless the quilter, or someone familiar with the quilter, lets you in on the unique signature in the quilt.
You can purchase mini quilts, large quilts and even quilted coasters that are made by 92 year old Ruth Kennedy who has vowed to keep on creating something beautiful until she's run out of time on this earth.
Gee's Bend Mural Trail
Quilt 9 - Ms. Ruthy Moseley: "Nine Patch" (note: on the day of our visit we learned from Mary Ann Pettway at the Quilters Collective that this mural had been knocked down. It was not viewable on that day. So if you look and don't see it, it has not been repaired and replaced
Directions to Gee's Bend (from Montgomery, Alabama)
Go west on US 80 to Selma
Go west on AL 22, which will become AL 5 South as you continue your drive
Near Alberta, Alabama mile marker 32, go southeast on CR 29 (you'll see a sign for the Gee's Bend Ferry).
Once you turn on CR 29, the quilt trail will begin at the Freedom Quilting Bee site.
The Gee's Bend Quilters Collective
14570 Co Rd 29, Boykin, AL 36723
Open by appointment.
Call ahead to speak with Mary Ann Pettway. Phone: 334.573.2323