The quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama (also known as Boykin) have been classified as some of the most exceptional vernacular artworks in America while simultaneously compared to works by the great abstract expressionist painters. In fact, the very thing that made these series of quilted artworks “vernacular” is the very thing the world is hungry for—legacy, connection, contemplation, comfort. The quilts of Gee’s Bend have hung on the walls of internationally known art galleries, museums, and universities as some of the most inspired pieces to ever rub against the Western art canon.
There are a couple of ways to know a Gee’s Bend quilt. First, a form. Traditional patterns like log cabin, wagon wheel, monkey wrench, shoo fly may take on both implicit and explicit appearances in a Gee’s Bend quilt. In the 1999 book Hidden In Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, two historians, Dobard and Tobin, suggest these types of quilt patterns were used as a secret code used to relay messages in the Underground Railroad. Many historians hotly contest this notion, but the stories of these patterns as hidden connections are indeed woven into the history of the African American quilt.
The second way to spot a Gee’s Bend quilt is its improvisation. There is always a surprising, clever genius in the pattern or color palette. “There are no two quilts alike. I’ve never made a quilt that looks like another quilt, and I couldn’t if I tried,” Mary Ann Pettway explains. If cotton were jazz, it would be a Gee’s Bend quilt.
In 2018, I contacted Mary Ann Pettway about coming to the Shoals to exhibit some of the Collective’s quilts and tell us about her experience growing up in Gee’s Bend, a rural community of descendants of African Americans enslaved at the Pettway plantation on the Alabama River. Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway came to the Shoals this past May and shared their stories through their songs and quilts.
I drove down to Gee’s Bend to pick up the quilts for the exhibition at Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts early April with my father. He and I hadn’t spent much time together since I started working full time nearly six years ago. Before then, we would talk on the phone almost every day. My father and I argue pretty consistently about nearly everything under the sun in an open and (mostly) loving manner. Driving down to Gee’s Bend gave us hours to talk about all the issues that widen the generational and cultural divide between us. Still, he is my best friend.
We arrived at the Collective mid-afternoon, and China and Mary Ann were working. A white couple from Tennessee had driven down to purchase a quilt, and Mary Ann was wrapping up the transaction with them. Slowly that burning sensation crept into my gut. I was also a white lady admirer coming to “see the quilts.” I walked up to China at her sewing table and introduced my father and myself. We sat next to her as she showed us what she was working on, a simple block pattern. “I’m just sitting here getting lost in this quilt. It just quiets my mind,” she said hospitably. My father, quite the talker, asked her questions about quilting and shared some family memories with China. She had the patience to listen to them all and share a few of her own.
Mary Ann took me into the smaller room with quilts stacked to the ceiling. We unfolded, stacked, and sorted too many quilts until we had decided on sixteen to bring back to Florence. She was kind enough to let me take the most expensive quilt off the wall as the centerpiece of the show. I asked her how she felt about all the visitors coming to see their process. I had read about the history of cultural exploitation in African American vernacular arts in particular. “I’ve been all over the world and met many amazing people in this world. Each person and each quilt is a connection. We are all God’s children. It’s always good to meet another child of God,” Mary Ann told me. Her words were like water poured into my spirit.
Before my dad and I loaded up the car with quilts, we purchased Mary Ann and China’s CD, Sacred Spirituals of Gee’s Bend. On the drive back, we hashed out old memories of my granny and her quilts. When we thought about it, the only art in granny’s house was her quilts, unless you wanted to count her garden. The woman could undoubtedly grow a magnificent snowball hydrangea. We both miss her. We put in Mary Ann and China’s CD and sat in wonder listening to their powerful voices sing the first song, Give Me My Flowers.
Give me my flowers While I yet live So that I, I can see Beauty That they bring
Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway at Storyteller’s Festival in Florence, AL
Friends and loved ones May give me flowers When I’m sick Or on my sick bed But I’d rather have Just one tulip right now Than a blanket full of roses When I am dead
Give me my flowers While I yet live So that I can see the Beauty That they bring
Speak kind words to me While I can hear them So that I, I can hear the Comfort That they bring
Mary Ann and China’s visit to Florence was one I will never forget. They shared their stories of Gee’s Bend, family, cotton, and quilts at the Shoals Storytelling Festival and also the opening reception at Kennedy-Douglass. When they sang Give Me My Flowers, chills ran down my spine. A quilt can be contemporary art, and it can be a tulip or a kind word as well.
-Christi Britten is a community-engaged artist and photographer. She is an arts program coordinator and exhibition curator for the City of Florence Arts and Museums. She is a graduate student at Goddard College where she is studying cultural studies and social practice. Her four kids keep her drive for peacekeeping and social change alive. She has a B.S. in Communications from UNA and is director of the Shoals Storytelling Festival.