1923 - 2001

Ella Mae Irby

Alberta, Alabama
About

The family of Delia Bennett (1892-1976) includes many of Gee's Bend's most talented quiltmakers. Bennett's daughter Ella Mae Irby passed the tradition to a third generation—her daughter Linda Diane Bennett (1955-1988). Irby talks about her life.

Wasn't no happy stuff back then. Didn't have nothing to be happy with. Mama, if we got ever to a flour biscuit she'd take one biscuit and break it in four piece. Didn't have much. Come up hard.

We farmed. Lived on the Brown plantation, under what they called "landlords." Cotton, corn, peas, sorghum syrup, hogs, cows . . . Back at that time you worked for thirty cents, forty cents a day, and out of that you pay the landlords. . . . Time was hard. They call it "advancing" back in those days. The Man wouldn't give you nothing but meat and meal, wouldn't give you no flour, sugar, or nothing else—you had to hustle for extra stuff. . . . We picked cotton and things but it wasn't for us. It was for the white man, the boss man. Old Man Spurlin. They lived in Camden. We didn't get nothing for doing it. We had to do it 'cause we was living on his plantation. He took every last bit of it. Did not give us nothing. 

Play with one another, only fun we had. Jacks, hopscotch. Played in the dirt—we was already raggly. We'd put dirt all over you: that was playing. That was good, throwing dirt on one another.

We'd go to the church, Mama fix up dresses for us. Learnt us how to do it, too—dresses out of fertilizer sacks. Fertilizer called "6-8-2," one big number. That number stayed right there on the dresses and shirts. Couldn't never get it off. Dyed them blue; one of them yellow. We bought dye at the store. You get all the dye you want for a nickel. Different dress for each Sunday—one for the first, one for the second. Went to church barefeeted. Had a hard time but the Good Lord made a way for us, blessed us to do better.

Mama do all the cooking, cleaning—everything had to be did, she did it. Then she'd go to the field, too. We start about seven, then about ten o'clock she go home try to find something to cook—a little greens and peas, something such as that. I was twenty-eight years old when I had my first child, Lue Ida Bennett. Got married when I was thirty-two to Addison Irby.

Creation Story explores parallels and intersections in the works of Dial and his fellow Alabamians, the remarkable quilters of Gee’s Bend. In the tradition of African American cemetery constructions and yard art, these artists harness the tactile properties and symbolic associations of cast-off materials in creating an art of profound beauty and evocative power.

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.

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.

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.

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.”