1942 -

Loretta Pettway

Boykin, Alabama

In her youth, Loretta Pettway had many Pettway quiltmaking mentors—including Missouri, Louella, Qunnie, grandmother Prissy, and stepmother Plummer T.—but she has kept to herself artistically throughout her adult life. Her earliest surviving quilts are made of everyday clothing, especially men's work clothes.

I didn't like to sew. Didn't want to do it. I had a handicapped brother and I had to struggle. I had a lot of work to do. Feed hogs, work in the field, take care of my handicapped brother. Had to go to the field. Had to walk about fifty miles in the field every day. Get home too tired to do no sewing. My grandmama, Prissy Pettway, told me, "You better make quilts. You going to need them." I said, "I ain't going to need no quilts." But when I got me a house, a raggly old house, then I needed them to keep warm. We only had heat in the living room, and when you go out of that room you need cover. I had to get up about four, five o'clock, and get coal. Make a fire. Them quilts done keep you warm.

I helped Grandmama when I was little: thread the needle, cut the pieces, rip the pieces, pick them out for her, put them together. I first pieced a whole quilt when I was about eleven. My grandmama said, "Just piece it up. I got to learn you how to do it." I did one called a "Nine Patch." I wanted to call myself making a pretty one but I didn't know how to line up nothing pretty, so I made me a "Nine Patch." I quilted it, me and my grandmama.

I never had a child life. My mother leaved when I was 'round about seven or eight. My father was named Famous Pettway and he lived down here in the country, and he married another woman, Plummer T. We sort of got along. I saw him regular. I was raised for a while by my uncle Tank Pettway and aunt Candis. I grow up with Qunnie and Tank Jr. and them, my first cousins. Then I leaved from over there and went over there with my auntie Missouri Pettway, Arlonzia's mama. I lived there a while. Then I leaved there and lived down there with my grandmama, Prissy. I growed up there then. We were farming and I would go in the field from Monday till Saturday, twelve o'clock. Then Sunday we had to go to church. Every other Sunday I might could get to play with other children on a evening after I did the work chores at home.

I get to go to school a little bit, in October and November and December. Then we get ready to knock cotton stalks and break up the land for start the farming over. In the last of December, first of January, we get in the fields then, burning cotton stalks and corn stalks. I had an abusive husband. He was a drinker, he was a gambler, he was a smoker. He had a lot of habits. I didn't have no habits. Couldn't afford them. My husband was real jealous, beat me up if he see me talking to a man. I had seven children. We were farming for a while and I had to work in the fields just the same as when I was little. I had to take the children to the fields. They would sit in the wagon under the tree while we was out in the field working. 'Long until Christmas—September to December—I catch the spur truck and we go on it to pull cotton. We catch that truck about at five o'clock in the morning. When we came back, it be dark. The spur truck was a big old truck with wood walls to hold us in there. He go up and down the road picking up the mostly young boys and girls that wanted to work the cotton fields. When I was about six we'd go pick blackberries on Saturday till about twelve o'clock, and then we'd get on the ferry and they take us 'cross the river to Camden. We would go and sell them, me and my grandmother. We walked through the neighborhood; she carry them on her head in a pail or a tub, and I would carry a sink bucket full, and sell them by the quarts. I always suffer with bad headaches and could never tote nothing on my head. They know the blackberries be ripe in May, and we go over there; they be waiting.

This catalogue accompanies the exhibition Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South, presented at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, June 8-November 17, 2019.

A new consideration of extraordinary art created by self-taught Black artists during the mid-20th century​. My Soul Has Grown Deep considers the art-historical significance of self-taught Black artists, many working under conditions of poverty and isolation, in the American South. It features paintings and drawings, mixed-media and sculptural works, and quilts, including pieces ranging from the pioneering paintings of Thornton Dial (1928–2016) to the renowned quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

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.
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.

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.

Turner Contemporary
February 7, 2020 to September 6, 2020

We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South is the first exhibition of its kind in the UK and reveals a little-known history shaped by the Civil Rights period in the 1950s and 60s. It will bring together sculptural assemblages, paintings and quilts by more than 20 African American artists from Alabama and surrounding states.

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.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
June 8, 2019 to November 17, 2019

As embodiments of the African American experience and cultural legacies, the works of art featured in Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South are rooted in African aesthetic legacies, familial tradition, and communal ethos. Previously marginalized as “folk or self-taught” art, they now take their rightful place as significant contributors to the canon of American Modernism.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
May 22 - September 23, 2018

This exhibition will present 30 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and quilts by self-taught contemporary African American artists to celebrate the 2014 gift to The Metropolitan Museum of Art of works of art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

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."

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.

Loretta Pettway