1921 - 2004

Lucy T. Pettway

Boykin, Alabama

Raised and trained by several of Gee’s Bend’s most serious quiltmakers, Lucy T. Pettway, known as “Lunky,” made quilts for seven decades. She has been more curious than most of her peers about patterns that originate outside the area, which she collects and transforms.

I was a farmer. I’m the fourth of fourteen children of Mary Ann and Tom O. Pettway. I was born in 1921. We farmed cotton, corn, peanuts, sugarcane, peas, millet—called it sorghum in them days. I plowed mules and steers. If my father was gone, I plowed in his place. Most of the time girls wasn’t let to plow.


We went to school in the old church back then. We didn’t go to school until the last of November. Come out of school last part of March, had to knock cotton stalks, cut bushes, clear up new ground, get ready to break the land and plant. When my daddy got a tractor, I didn’t have to plow no more. I had one kid already by then. I was twenty years. I stopped school at that time but was just in fifth grade. They had ones in the fifth grade older than I was, even.

I farmed right up to when they put the water down. They built a dam down at Miller’s Ferry and that flooded out the land between here and our farmland—we had a piece about ten acres on the hill by the river. We quit farming it then. After that, I just farmed a little around the house. I had lot more time then to piece up quilts and quilt them. I always had taken me some quilt pieces in the fields when I was working there, and when I knock off work at twelve to eat, I make me a block or so till I go back to the fields. When the field days ended, I went to making quilts most all the time when I wasn’t sewing and making clothes for my children to wear.

I started piecing quilts when I was probably about twelve. I loved to sew. I watched my mama, and got me some cloth, and went to piecing. The first quilt I ever made was a "Lazy Gal." I was thirteen. Then a "Nine Patch." Then I went to string quilts, just sewing pieces together. Old clothes we didn’t wear no more, that’s what we made them out of then.

My aunt Lucy, my grandmother’s sister, she was working for the white people across the river in Camden. She give us a book the white people gave her with quilt patterns in it. My mother made some quilts after the book patterns, and I do the same sometime—"Stars," "Monkey Wrench," that’s about it. I mostly made string quilts. I get me my ideas different kind of ways. I used to pass by quilts out on a line, get me a piece of paper and draw a pattern from it, make me my quilt. Mama was one to show me a lot. Mama make a "Snowball," I make me one. I used to go to Martha Jane’s house, my mama’s sister, help her quilt. My aunt Arie, my daddy’s baby sister, she make any kind of quilts. She nursed me when I was a baby. I loved her.

I been piecing quilt tops right up to about last year. I can’t quilt them no more. My head be swimming, like turning around, from high blood pressure. I went to the hospital in 1985 with this thing, found out what caused it. They say 'high blood pressure" but they ain’t done nothing about it. I’d love to go back to quilts. I love to quilt. I love to piece on them. I love to wash them. I love to look at pretty quilts. I got to make me another one.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."