1898 - 2003

Martha Jane Pettway

Boykin, Alabama

During the Great Depression, government representatives learned that Gee's Bend had unofficial leaders, including Little Pettway and his wife, Martha Jane, who helped persuade the other families to participate in the New Deal social programs and were among the first to purchase a "Roosevelt" house. Their son Nathan (1914-2002), husband of quiltmaker Louella Pettway, recounted some of the earlier times.

My father was Little Pettway. He was kind of a leader of the community, and it was him that got the project started here. That project cut the land up in parts; each was so many acres. My mother, Martha Jane, and Little got about seventy-five acres; they got so many acres out in the swamp and so many around the house. My mama had fifteen children, five boys and ten girls, and I was the oldest, and ten of them is dead now. We growed our own food and had some hogs. It was rough on us, but we made it. We hunted all the time then—rabbits and squirrels.

My mama and them didn't have nothing good to make them quilts out of, but they made quilts for us children. They get old odd stuff, whatever they could find, and make a quilt out of it. It would last a year sometimes, and then us tear it up before the year out. My mama teach the older girls to quilt. Yeah, Plummer T., my sister, now she could quilt. I don't know nothing about what those quilts looked like, other than I slept under them.

We moved to Montgomery when I was about six years old, and Mama lost a daughter up there. They was building a bridge across the river in Montgomery, and my daddy go up there to work on it. My first job was in Montgomery. Me and my mama go pick berries and go downtown and sell them. We stayed about a year and then came back here. I was tired of school after I come here. I didn't go to school over three months. One teacher be teaching twenty or thirty children. Go in the old schoolhouse there, and it'd rain sometimes and we'd get under the table to keep from getting wet. Them people from Washington come down here and have a meeting up there where the day-care center is at, and they start the project. My father, he represent the peoples at that meeting.

My mother also worked in the fields and the swamp. She'd have a baby and walk out of the swamp at twelve o'clock and let him suck, and then go back into the swamp to work. One of them little girls take care of the baby. They farmed in the swamp: cotton, corn, peas, sweet potatoes—and growed okra one year. Mama liked to go in the fields, but after us got just about grown, she quit going there and stayed in the house.

My father was a Teener, not a Pettway. I don't know where they came from. My father was born and raised down here. He go up to places like Tennessee and Montgomery and talk to them head folks. We wouldn't have been down in here if he hadn't have done that. We could have still farmed, but after they went to putting timber on the land, the white folks would have been running us off. They was wanting to be down in here. See, all those people across the river and back up the road there, they wanted to come down here. After the integration started, Herbert Hall Wilkinson was running them away from up there. Them white folks was alarmed when we get in those marches, and the white folks try to get us to go away. I went on a couple marches. A lot of the people from down here marched. A lot of my family was big into the marches.

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.

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.

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
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.

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."