1929 - 2010

Leola Pettway

Boykin, Alabama

I started out piecing quilts when I was eleven years old. We didn't have nothing to make quilts like folks have now. Some old piece of rags, old dresses that was too raggly to wear, that's all. I cut these little blocks with my hands, made me a whole black-and-white quilt. Eleven years old. After I pieced it, my auntie Deborah Young teach me to quilt it.

I was a outlaw child, didn't know my daddy. My mother didn't raise me after she married and left with that man Ottoway Pettway—Lucy T. and them's granddaddy. My mother went to work for a man they called Deaf Doc. He ran the ferry over to Camden.

I plowed; I broke up land. We had a horse was named Sarah, plowed, and us people made so much cotton. But didn't get nothing for it. My uncle Reverend Spurlin Pettway would spread the fertilizer with his mule and a hand fertilizer distributor, and I was behind, planting the cotton with one of them hand cotton planters. I started smoking then. Had to smoke behind that stinking horse I was plowing. I don't start in the field like some children, nine or ten. I was about fifteen. My granddaddy had married Lottie Pettway after his first wife had been dead. Lottie was Creola's sister what died with her up there, and they had two children. I had to raise them two little boys, so I was late starting in the fields.

I was born in 1929 in one of them old log-board crib kind of house. My first cousin Arcola—Deborah Young's oldest child—she lived with us. We used to steal back there to the branch and get in that water and call ourselves swimming. Weren't enough water to swim, but there weren't nothing to do back then for fun. When they put the cotton on the porch after they pick it, we roll around and play in it. We couldn't go nowhere. Didn't have nothing. Somebody give me a pair of beads once to wear. Lot of children was playing once and my beads got stole. I reckon I cried and cried. When you don't have much and it gets missing, you have to cry. I got plenty of beads now.

We used to go to a school down here, down a hill a piece and up in the woods. I went in there some, maybe two days a week. I was old then, about sixteen or seventeen when I started. They passed me to seventh grade. I was very apt, learnt good, arithmetic, and I teach all my children. I just didn't get to spend much time in school. I had four children when my mama sent me down to Mobile to work and try to get some money. I only stayed a month or two, babysitting and keeping house, and had sent the checks home. Somebody from up in the Bend come to Mobile and tell me my mama was sick, and I took a bus back home and got there, my mama had died and was in the funeral home. I stayed on home with my children. I was a good person. I didn't do bad things. The bad things I did, I did to have to raise my children. I had to be the man—I was a lady but had to be the man, too—had to bust wood, do all the work it take to care for a family, and had to keep people from running over us. They tried to put us out one time, but I said, "Put me out, we coming right back."

I ended up with ten children. Had eleven, but one died. The Lord helped me raise them, feed them. We always have enough to eat, clothes to wear. Lord blessed us. Still blessing. I got religion when I was staying down there, seventeen years old. Reverend William Carey—Rachel Carey George's daddy—he baptized me up here in the creek. I come through hard, but making it pretty good now with the help of the Lord. I can't talk no more about how I come up. It hurt to think back on it.

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 Quilts of Gee's Bend

The Quilts of Gee's Bend documentary accompanies the major exhibitions of Gee's Bend quilts. Set in the quiltmaker's homes and yard, and told through the women's voices, this music-filled, 28-minute documentary takes viewers inside the art and fascinating living history of a uniquely American community and art form.

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."