1911 - 1991

Mary Elizabeth Kennedy

Boykin, Alabama

Daughter of Reverend Spurlin Pettway, one of Gee's Bend's leaders during the early twentieth century, Mary Elizabeth Kennedy married Houston Kennedy. (Houston, with his plow and mule, was immortalized in one of the most emblematic photographs of 1930s rural America.) Their niece Tinnie Dell Pettway recalls the family.

Mary Elizabeth's parents was married a long time before having nary'n children. After about fifteen years, Mary Elizabeth was born, and she was like the special one always. She was the one who got everything. Grandmama ran things. Granddaddy Spurlin Pettway was kind of a quiet man, like to stay to himself in the woods hunting and fishing. Left things up to Grandmama. They all farmed, a little peas and sweet potatoes. Their main crop was cotton. They had a little hogs on the side, for food, nothing to take to the market, and depended largely on their garden to provide food, and whatever they could hunt and kill and fish. It was survival for them. They were very poor people. Practically everybody down here was poor, and they shared with their neighbors. If you went to your kitchen and your meal was gone, you was sent to your neighbors for meal. Same for salt, pepper, flour, sugar, anything else.

A lot of people did make what you call sorghum from millet. You shared that if you had it. If you need milk for biscuits, and your milk cow wasn't giving milk, or you didn't have a cow, somebody always give you milk.

Mary Elizabeth didn't have to do much of the fieldwork. In those days they had one-room school shacks with a potbellied stove, only two or three months a year of schooling. They paid the teacher with whatever they grew—sweet potatoes, peanuts—and it was satisfactory for the teachers. You took whatever you had to school for food. You take a baked sweet potato in your pocket, or a pocketful of peanuts, or, if you was lucky enough, a biscuit with some syrup between it.

She married Houston Kennedy, and children started flying in. She had two before him, and twelve in all. But the women didn't get to plan the children. The man was in charge—no planned parenthood. I can tell you that if the woman was in charge you wouldn't find no family with twenty or thirty children. If a man's wife didn't have children at least every two years, he was the joke of the community. He wasn't no good. It was a macho time. They'd have taken a sperm count, but back then they didn't know nothing about sperm. They say when sometime there was a question about who the real father was, the response was, "If the child don't look like you, if you feed him long enough he'll be starting looking like you."

Mary Elizabeth got killed when her car crashed coming back from Selma or Camden. She was an old lady then. Before she died, her daughter came down and said she just knew someone was going to die because she could smell the death in there, all over that house. She said the death angel was just flying through the house. I have never experienced that. The only thing I know about is people putting the devil lye under the steps to ward off evil spirits. When we moved the church up there, they found several cans of devil lye under the steps. (I know a few people now that need to put devil lye under their steps.) We had an aunt that believed in witchcraft. She lived with us. She would put barbed wire under the bed, and she would put a round sifter under the bed because she said that if the witch came, he would have to count every hole in the sifter before he come in. She would get these rattan vines—they make these little berries—and she would stick all that stuff under her bed. And salt and pepper, because they said the witches get out of their skin. And if they put the salt and pepper under there, and it get on the raw body, they had to beg to get back in. That sounds so silly. People accused my grandmother Patsy of being a witch.

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.

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.

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 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
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."