1934 - 1994

Arcola Pettway

Boykin, Alabama

The life of Arcola Pettway, with its farming, child raising, gospel singing, and quiltmaking, was very similar to those of her closest relatives and friends. Her cousin Leola Pettway, who was raised in the same home with Arcola, remembers their younger days:

My auntie Deborah Young was her mama. You got to ask somebody else about who her daddy were. We growed up together, living with our granddaddy, Paul S. Pettway. He was a reverend. We played a lot; couldn't do much in them days but stay home and make up games, or go get water from down to the spring. When us coming up—we was little children—we used to sing together in church, just the two of us. Best thing back then was: went fishing. Set out hook overnight, go back next morning and get something sometime.

Auntie Deborah, she teach us about quilts. Teach me first—I was five or six years older than Arcola and I reckon I showed her some.

She used to sing in a group, the Golden Angels, go around to churches; sing with her sisters Mouitree Kennedy and Lola Saulsberry, and my daughter China, and I help them out some Sundays.

Arcola got married to one of Lucy T.'s brothers, Joseph Pettway. They had a lot of children, I reckon a dozen or more. They farmed, just about like everybody else.

This book and exhibition are part of a growing family of research projects about the African American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and its quilts. Surrounded on three sides by a river, Gee’s Bend developed a distinctive local culture and quilt design aesthetic. In 2002 the inaugural exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend documented these quiltmaking achievements. Expanding upon that initial exhibition and its accompanying publications, Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt offers a deeper look into the women and their art, and a more focused investigation into the nature and inspirations—and future—of the Gee’s Bend quilt tradition.

The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, black community in Alabama—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend tells the story of this town and its art.

Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair—quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
September 6 – November 10, 2002

"The Quilts of Gee’s Bend" celebrates the artistic legacy of four generations of African-American women from a small, historically all-black community in rural southern Alabama. This exhibition of over sixty extraordinary quilts that were made between 1930 and 2000 showcases a body of work that is bold, spirited, moving, and hailed by Michael Kimmelman, in The New York Times, as “some of the most miraculous works of art America has produced.”

The Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend

This uplifting, Emmy-winning PBS film tells the modern-day "Cinderalla" story of the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, Alabama. Artists born into extreme poverty, they live to see their quilts hailed by a The New York Times art critic as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."