1921 - 2006

Louella Pettway

Boykin, Alabama

One of the Carson sisters, Louella Pettway made quilts into her eighties for relatives who had migrated to live in other parts of the United States.

My mother and father were Elizabeth Carson and Sim Carson. We ain’t had but one brother and six sisters. I was the youngest one. My mama had some more but they died when they was babies. When I was little I hoed and picked cotton, and we growed corn, sweet potatoes, peanuts, peas. I ain’t never seed quilts made when I was growing up. I didn’t start to making them till after I was married. I just got hold of me some pieces to work on. Yeah, Lord, we did work hard. I went through just the first grade, had to quit to go to the fields.

Got a lot of help from our loved ones. Had to send to my sister Aolar’s house for stuff sometime. She and her husband, Wisdom, always help us out with meal, lard, meat. She was a giving woman. God don’t bless everybody the same: we work hard but just didn’t have it sometime.

I made a lot of quilts, and a heap of time I give quilts away. Just made them and give them away. I ain’t never stopped making quilts. I ain’t making nothing now, but I ain’t never stopped. Arthritis got me. Oh, Lord, it gets so cold back in here, and we wash outdoors and rinse the clothes outdoors. Then when we hang them out, they freeze to ice. My hands went to hurting me ’cause I got old.

I had a good life here. I liked it down here. My daddy moved from down here to Selma. Just stayed a little while and come back. He carried us with him. I guess the worst part was the hard work, working in the fields. Yes, Lord. Ground got so hot it burned my feet when I’m out there hoeing. Didn’t have no shoes, even when it got cold, and we even get on our knees to work. My mama made my clothes while she was living, but she died early. Daddy took care of us after that. I was his only child he had there, but he had a lot of grandchildren he had to take care of—Mariella’s children (she had three girls) and Sugarpie’s children. Prissy was my oldest sister, and she had a boy that stayed with us till he was grown. And when they got big enough they all work in the fields.

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.

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.

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.

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."