1929 -

Jessie T. Pettway

Boykin, Alabama

Given the name "J.T." at her birth, the quiltmaker has always been known as "Bootnie"—and since her school days has called herself "Jessie," after her favorite teacher.

I was born and raised right down there in the White community, they call it, in Gee's Bend. The man over the community at that time was Mr. White, the plantation manager. That's why they call it that. The official name then was Primrose, Alabama. My daddy was Joe Benning, but he never lived with us. I saw him regular when I was young. He wasn't living too far from us, and I run into him a lot. Back then we was walking to school about five miles, from down there to the old school up by Arlonzia house. I got to eleventh grade. My mother, Channie Pettway, died at an early age and leave the younger children, me and my sister Lola and my brother Lee Foster, to her sister, Seebell Kennedy, my aunt who raised us. We'd do our chores every morning before school, clean up the room and milk the cow, and after we'd get back, we'd do our homework. Then Little Sis—that's what we called my aunt Seebell—she'd give us lessons on how to cut out pieces and piece up quilts and help her quilt her own quilts, and that's how I learned. My first quilt was a "Eight-Pointed Star." I kept it until I married and the children wore it out on the bed. I was about twelve when I started making quilts on my own. We mostly made string quilts out of old clothes and overalls we tore up for pieces—khaki shirts and stuff. Sometimes cousins from Mobile bring us old clothes for making quilts. My aunt had a old book of patterns that she sometime used, but I didn't like no book patterns. I couldn't buy pretty materials, so I couldn't make pretty patterns. I like what folks called "Bricklayer" 'cause you could make it into something pretty with any old kind of cloth.

Before I married, I worked in the fields at home with my uncle Alp Kennedy and my aunt. Hoed cotton, corn, peas, peanuts, sweet potatoes. We farmed some of everything. Had gardens with different kinds of vegetables—all kinds. Everything we needed we raised it ourselves. Killed hogs, goats—barbecued them goats and they was delicious. When I married and came up here, I married into the same thing—same field work, same crops. Me and my husband, Monroe Pettway, farmed together for twenty years, from 1955 to 1975. Then I started working at the day care for Tinnie Dell. Monroe and me had nine children—seven girls, two boys.

I been here my whole life. I'm seventy-one now. Things don't change too much—maybe a little, but I don't see no great change. White folks get a little nicer, laughing with you now, but it's phony. Don't mean nothing. After the civil rights, we got treated a little better at the stores over in Camden. We do have a chance to buy more now. We buy our food now—don't make it—but I wouldn't say the food is better now, or that we got more of it. We had plenty of food back then. Good food, too.

While the artists featured in this groundbreaking catalog were born in the Jim Crow period of institutionalized racism, their works embody the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Originally created as expressions of individual identity and communal solidarity, these eloquent objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. This gorgeous book features lush illustrations of works by artists such as Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and the Gee's Bend quilters--including Gearldine Westbrook, Jessie T. Pettway, and more--and presents a series of insightful essays.

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.

Toledo Museum of Art
April 4, 2020 to July 5, 2020

The Toledo Museum of Art will feature 10 newly acquired works in the free exhibition, Trip to the Mountaintop: Recent Acquisitions from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from April 4 to July 5, 2020, in the New Media Gallery. The Souls Grown Deep Foundation is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to documenting, preserving and promoting the work of African American artists from the South and their cultural traditions.

de Young Museum
June 3, 2017 to April 1, 2018

"Revelations: Art from the African American South" celebrates the debut of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta of 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States.

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 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
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."