Quilts reflect amazing spirit, history


SEARSPORT — They are called the “Gee’s Bend Quilters” and come from a tiny, isolated community nestled in a bend of the Alabama River southeast of Selma, Ala. Their hand-stitched coverings are “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced,” according to The New York Times.

Three of the Gee’s Bend Collective’s 50 quilters — China Pettway, Stella Mae Pettway and Revil Mosley — recently traveled almost 1,500 miles to Searsport, where they were the focus of a Sept. 3-7 show at Penobscot Marine Museum. The women also taught quilting classes at the Fiber College of Maine.

On Sept. 3, each quilter presented one of her handmade works at a public forum attended by more than 200 people at the First Congregational Church in Searsport. A potluck supper and gospel sing were held in their honor the same night.

“We’ve been to many places, and people have never respected us the way you have,” China Pettway said. “Thank you all for your hospitality. You are beautiful people.”

A geometric simplicity and boldness of color characterize many of the 70 quilts featured in the “Gee’s Bend Quilters” traveling show that has been featured across the country from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

Woven through the Gee’s Bend quilts is a history of poverty and racism, which drew attention during the civil rights movement from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who visited the town in 1965.

The Gee’s Bend quilting tradition dates back to the 19th century, when the community was the site of a cotton plantation owned by Joseph Gee. A white family — the Pettways — later purchased the land and brought around 100 slaves with them, who also took the last name “Pettway.”

Female slaves would piece together strips of cloth to make bedcovers for warmth, an art they passed on to their children and grandchildren.

“My mom thought when you turned 12, you were old enough to go to hell,” Stella Mae Pettway said in jest. “Which meant you were old enough to quilt and make corn bread.”

Because the quilts were born out of necessity, they follow no traditional pattern and often contain found items such as recycled fabrics, denim pants, headscarves and work shirts.

“Quilts from those days were not made from new material,” China Pettway said. “I didn’t know what new material was. We didn’t have a fabric store.”

After the Civil War, Gee’s Bend remained one of the poorest areas in the nation. Surrounded on three sides by water, residents relied heavily on the ferry service to reach the next closest town of Camden.

In 1962, the ferry service was eliminated as part of a campaign to deny African-Americans access to voting booths. This further isolated the community for the next 44 years.

“All men are created equal in the sight of God, no matter what color you are,” Stella Mae Pettway said. “We did what we had to do.”

Stella Mae Pettway was one of many who attempted to register to vote. As a result, she was sprayed with tear gas. Others were beaten or imprisoned. Some lost their jobs and even their homes.

“If you went there, you were no different than a dog or cat that gets hit on the highway,” Stella Mae Pettway said. “I thank God for every drop of tear gas I had to get. Through it all, we got the right to vote.”

In 1998, the women of Gee’s Bend received an uncharacteristic stroke of good fortune when an Atlanta-based art collector named William Arnett came across a photograph of a quilt draped over a woodpile.

The blanket was stitched together by a Gee’s Bend resident, Annie Mae Young, from her old work clothes.

Arnett tracked down the woman and showed up at her door unannounced late one night. Young had destroyed some of her quilts in a fire the week before —because burning cotton drives off mosquitoes — and she initially believed the quilt Arnett sought was one of them.

The next day, Young found the quilt and offered it to Arnett for free. Instead, he insisted on writing her a check for thousands of dollars.

Arnett presented photos of Young’s quilts to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, which hosted the first exhibition in September 2002.

And thus, the dying art in Gee’s Bend was revived.

Quilter Revil Mosley said she will sometimes dream of a quilt, which will cause her to wake in the middle of the night and get to work.

“If it comes into my mind and I don’t get up, it’s gone,” Revil said. “I can’t go back to sleep.”

Revil said she still enjoys hand stitching her quilts, although other Gee’s Bend quilters use modern technology.

“Lord blessed me with a sewing machine,” China Pettway said. “I’m going to use it.”

The quilts are still all handmade, and the Gee’s Benders travel the country to present and sell them at exhibitions.

During their stay in Searsport, they experienced boating expeditions and sightseeing tours of coastal venues.

“I thank God for where he brought us from,” China Pettway said. “He brought us out of darkness into this marvelous life.”

Taylor Vortherms

Taylor Vortherms

Sports Editor at The Ellsworth American
Taylor Vortherms covers sports in Hancock County. The St. Louis, Missouri native recently graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism and joined The Ellsworth American in 2013.