1920 - 2015

Irene Williams

Alberta, Alabama

Although she is the daughter-in-law of quiltmaker Patty Ann Williams, Irene Williams has made her quilts in solitude throughout her adult life and arrived at an original, personal artistic vision almost completely uninfluenced by her peers.

I was born in Wilcox County, in Rehoboth, Alabama. My mother was named Sandy Williams; Tom Williams was my father. Back in them years they didn't do nothing but farm in the fields. Making corn, peas, potatoes and everything, and raised hogs in the yard. That's what we lived on: what we made. 'Long in them years, the government furnished chickens and cows for people. The government furnished these things for people that farmed these big old bulls what they plowed back then. People didn't live happy, because we just lived off what we make. We didn't owe no debt, though. Anybody who wanted to join that program would get cows and big old steers to plow, and raised so many chickens. That's what we ate: chickens off the yard. That's the reason I don't like chicken now. Big old roosters, hens—and they laid nice eggs and everything. Those cows, milk cows, four or five cows. That's what we lived off of. We didn't have to go to school.

My parents was born in Rehoboth, too. I didn't know about slaves when we was coming up. My people wasn't no slaves. My grandparents might have been slaves, as far as I know. I just remember my mama's mama was named Arie Craig. We went to Pine Grove Baptist Church School. Had to walk to school long way then. Let's see how far I got in school: I think I got to the eighth or the ninth—somewhere along there. After that, I got a baby. I've had six children—three girls, three boys. My oldest boy, I buried him last Sunday. He was trying to save another man's life—that's what they tell me—and was in a truck wreck. It was a log truck. After I had children, I done helped my daddy work in the fields. We just raised cotton—some of everything. And what we worked on we didn't use fertilizer. He used leaves out the woods. We had trees in us yard. You pile them leaves up and haul them to the fields. We made watermelons—we made everything.

I remember when Martin Luther King came down here, too. In a way, black people been treated pretty good, pretty fair. I don't tell no lie. When I was growing up, white people didn't bother me none. All the white peoples I know treated me nice, like you're treating me today. I never did work for no white people. Didn't do nothing but work in the fields. When I married, I was seventeen years old. My husband, Cornelius Williams, was the best man that ever walk on God's ground. I was a Williams and I married a Williams. Liza Jane Williams was my sister-in-law. Patty Williams was my mother-in-law. Liza Jane Williams was Cornelius's sister, that's right. All them dead now.

When I got married, I started making quilts. I just put stuff together. I didn't do the best I could, because in them years I didn't have nothing but what little we got to make quilts and things out of.

After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Alabama produced an impressive number of African American self-taught artists whose work particularly focused on the Civil Rights Movement and on aspects of history that led to it. This happened, in part, because the action was right on their doorsteps: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma March, the murder of four little girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It was a spontaneous response to an emerging opportunity, and it occurred all over the South.
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.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
June 8, 2019 to September 2, 2019

The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South, an exhibition including paintings, sculptures, and quilts that celebrates the recent acquisition of 24 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Frist Center for the Visual Arts
May 25 - September 2, 2012

This exhibition explores parallels and intersections in the works of the world-famous Gee’s Bend quilters and the self-taught master of assemblage art, Thornton Dial. Quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend feature a sophisticated orchestration of color and eccentric quasi-geometric shapes composing what the New York Times has said are “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
June 4 – September 4, 2006

"Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt" features seventy spectacular quilts made by four generations of women in Gee's Bend, a small, isolated African American community in southwest Alabama. With bold improvisation of traditional quilt motifs, these women have created a style all their own. Made between the 1930s and the present, the Gee's Bend quilts’ bright patterns, inventive color combinations, lively irregularities and unexpected compositional variations make them outstanding examples of modern 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.”

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."