1911 - 2005

Martha Pettway

Gee's Bend, Alabama

Martha Pettway was born in 1911 in the White's Quarters area of Gee’s Bend. White’s was called Primrose then and had its own official designation on the map. Of the four contiguous neighborhoods in Gee’s Bend—Pettway, Sodom, Brown's Quarters, and White's Quarters—White’s was the most removed from the “center” (around the old plantation house) and was the most rural—lots of woods, few houses. The Reverend Curtis Pettway, her son, recalls that she spent a great deal of time quilting with her best friends, Clementine Kennedy and Pearlie Kennedy Pettway. These women’s works, especially Clementine Kennedy’s “Housetop” quilt that very closely resembles Martha Pettway’s versions, hint at the many circles of stylistic interchange, now lost, within which the tradition developed.

Martha's best period of quiltmaking coincided with her childbearing years, the late 1920s to the 1940s. She had eleven children. Unlike most other quiltmakers, she carefully protected and preserved a dozen or so of her earliest quilts. She was one of the most technically polished quiltmakers of her era, and her preferred pattern was the “Housetop,” repeated in numerous variations. She also rethought the conventional design of the “Housetop” to create some of the most superb versions yet found. Reverend Pettway relates that his mother was constantly making quilts and clothing, and didn't mind assistance from encroaching technology. “She sewed more of her quilts and clothes with her hands, but that lady knew what to do with a machine!”

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.

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.

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.

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."