1935 -

Mary Lee Bendolph

Boykin, Alabama
About

Mary Lee Bendolph is one of Gee’s Bend’s community memory keepers. In 1999 she was the subject of “Crossing Over,” the Los Angeles Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article about the effort to reestablish ferry service across the Alabama River.

Families down here, they like to do together. See, we farm together, and the ladies in the family get together for quilting. In them days, they farm three months, then when the lay-by time come—’round the last of May, June—they go to piecing quilts. August, go back to the field. October and November, up into December—and then after Christmas and New Year over with—back to piecing and quilting. Piece by yourself; quilt together.

When you go to quilt, you beat the cotton out on the floor, first thing, to get the dust out. Then sweep the floor—collect the cotton—spread the lining out and put the cotton back on the lining, beat it out, put the top on there, get your thread and needles and hook it in the quilting frame.

Most of the families down here did the same thing—piece by theirselves and come together to quilt. On my side, my family, we go fast, don’t follow no patterns so close. Other families take more time, do slow work. They don’t get out in the road much like us did. We just try to put it together and get it through with. We don’t try to style it or nothing. Folks call some of this kind of stuff “crazy quilts”—don’t know which-a-way it going. I never did go by a pattern. Didn’t none us. I mostly take after my aunt Louella, but I never make a quilt altogether like anybody. I watched Mama back when she could work, but she was slow and careful more than me.

We got a big family spread out down here making quilts: Mama and her sister Louella Pettway; Mama’s sister Virginia, her daughter Linda Pettway, and Linda’s daughters, Lucy Witherspoon and Gloria Hoppins; my mother-in-law, Indiana Bendolph Pettway. My sister Lillie Mae, she made real pretty quilts before she passed. Mama’s first cousin Deborah Young could make beautiful quilts, and her daughter Arcola. My daughter, Essie, always been doing good work since she was little. She a very strong-minded person. Determination. She like to make things like I make, but she look at it and go home and do it better.

My daddy was Wisdom Mosely and my mama was Aolar Mosely. She was good at healing peoples. She was a lovely, caring person. She go down in the woods and pick some stuff—I missed out on that part, can’t do none of that—and mix it up and give it to us, make us well. Only time we go to the doctor was with toothache—she couldn’t pull teeth—or if something was broke. She couldn’t do that.

My mother rubbed a lot of people and stopped they hurting. She always would be there for you. I don’t care who need her. She say the Lord tell you to give. The more you give, the more you get. She say you got to always say you have it even if you didn’t have it. Don’t ever say you ain’t got something. If folks think you ain’t got nothing, you can’t get nothing from them. If they think you got it, they give you some more.

Back then mamas didn’t never tell they children about having babies. If she told me, I about wouldn’t have had them. We didn’t know nothing about how it happen. We just think the mid-doctor come and give the baby to the parents. Mama would go to the doctor and come back with a baby. We think the doctor had give it to her.

One day, I got ready to go to school and Mama wouldn’t let me go. I ask her why I couldn’t go. She say, “You don’t want to go.” I kept asking her why I don’t go. She say, “You big.” That meant I was with a baby. I cried and prayed all day for the Lord to take it away from me, but he didn’t. Nothing but made me big and fat. The first time I had sex, my period came along. The next time I had sex, I got pregnant. I learnt the hard way.

I got to the sixth grade. When I got pregnant I had to quit. Mama knew the school wouldn’t take you when you pregnant. They made you quit, and after you had the baby you couldn’t go back to school. Soon as the school see you pregnant, you had to go home and stay. They say it was against the law for a lady to go to school and be pregnant, ’cause that influence the other children to get pregnant. Soon as you have a baby, you couldn’t never go to the school again.

When Essie—she my only daughter—when she turn fourteen, I sat down and talk with her and the boys, the three that was older than Essie, and Beaver, he was right under her. And I told them I prayed to the Lord that he could let me know things so I can tell them, so they wouldn’t go and grow up as stupid as I did. Some people not a breeding woman, but I was one. I was a fast breeder. I was little, but I got grown ’fore time. I got a baby when I didn’t need him. Dropped out of school. Fourteen years old. Didn’t even finish the middle school. Just moved through life too fast. Even now I could sit down and relax, but I still moving too fast.

I prayed a whole lot during that time for the Lord to help show me. One night in my rest, I had this big dream the airplane and the helicopter was riding over our head—a lot of people on the ground—and when they lit down, peoples started to running—but I didn’t run. Some white peoples and colored peoples, all mixed together, got off the plane and looked like they was having a meeting. I woke up and that dream wouldn’t get off my mind. I told Mama, “Something coming here to this place.”

I kept dreaming that dream about a helicopter—I always tell Mama ’cause she was good at telling me what the dreams mean, and she’d tell me to keep on praying, and the Lord will tell me things. And what I dreamed come to pass: Martin Luther King came to that big old church here in Gee’s Bend, up on the hill, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. He stood up and talked. I didn’t miss nothing.

And when he went to Camden, I had to beg my husband to let me go—but I went. We rode on Monroe Pettway’s truck, Bootnie’s husband. I was in the group with Martin Luther King when he went up to drink the “white” water. He wanted us to know that the water wasn’t no different and to let the white people know that we could all drink the same water. So, I went up to drink me some of it, and Lillie Mae, my oldest sister, caught hold to my coat. I put my arms back behind me and let that coat be pulled right off. I was on my way to that fountain to drink. I was going to drink the white water. I got to it, but she pulled me away, so I didn’t get none of the white water that day. She thought they was going to hurt me. She was supposed to take care of me. She was so humble and sweet. I was the bad guy in the family. I always could be more straight out, didn’t like holding back nothing. When I finally did get to drink that white water, it wasn’t no different. I wondered what all the fussing was about. I couldn’t see why they wanted to keep us from that water, unless they just thought we was dirty.

We have a good community. I thank the Lord for the peoples here. We hardly have a killing here. You don’t have to worry about locking up things. When I first married and I locked up the doors, my husband say, “We don’t have to lock up things here.” We left the key in the truck all the time. Ain’t nobody bothered it, year after year. I’m satisfied right here where I’m at. I’ll go visit some place. But to live there? No.

I don’t know enough to live in a city. I can’t hear good enough to live in a city. Cars go too fast in a city. When I went to Connecticut, they was pretty good in the part I was in, but they don’t do for each other. My son and I watched this white man trying to move a big old rock, and he had done dig around it until noon, and I told my son, “Go help that white man.” And he say, “I ain’t going nowhere help that man. Mama, you don’t help nobody here; you ain’t in the country.” I went out there and say to the white man, “You want me to move that block?” And he say, “Naw, I can’t let you do that.” So I say, “You want me to show you how?” And he say, “How you know about that?” And I say, “My mama taught me.”

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.

For a new exhibition launching at the National Gallery of Art, curator Lynne Cooke explores shifting conceptualizations of the American outlier across the 20th century, drawing on the inherent sociality of the exhibition in her installation of these works. This companion catalog, "Outliers and American Vanguard Art," offers a fantastic opportunity to consider works by schooled and self-taught creators in relation to each other and defined by historical circumstance.

For a new exhibition launching at the National Gallery of Art, curator Lynne Cooke explores shifting conceptualizations of the American outlier across the 20th century, drawing on the inherent sociality of the exhibition in her installation of these works. This companion catalog, "Outliers and American Vanguard Art," offers a fantastic opportunity to consider works by schooled and self-taught creators in relation to each other and defined by historical circumstance.

While the artists featured in this groundbreaking catalog were born in the Jim Crow period of institutionalized racism, their works embody the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Originally created as expressions of individual identity and communal solidarity, these eloquent objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. This gorgeous book features lush illustrations of works by artists such as Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and the Gee's Bend quilters--including Gearldine Westbrook, Jessie T. Pettway, and more--and presents a series of insightful essays.

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.

Mary Lee Bendolph’s extraordinary patchworks garnered national attention when they were featured among the works of other quiltmakers from her tiny, predominately African American community in the 2002 blockbuster exhibition and book, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. This beautiful book examines Bendolph’s inspiration, creative process, and individual genius, as well as her profound connection to the cultural practices and expressive traditions out of which her work arises. 

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.

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.

National Gallery of Art
January 28, 2018 to May 13, 2018

Self-taught artists—variously termed folk, primitive, visionary, naïve, and outsider—have played a significant role in the history of modernism, yet their contributions have been largely disregarded or forgotten. Again and again in the United States during the past century, vanguard artists found affinities and inspiration in the work of their untutored, marginalized peers and became staunch advocates, embracing them as fellow artists.

National Gallery of Art
January 28, 2018 to May 13, 2018

Self-taught artists—variously termed folk, primitive, visionary, naïve, and outsider—have played a significant role in the history of modernism, yet their contributions have been largely disregarded or forgotten. Again and again in the United States during the past century, vanguard artists found affinities and inspiration in the work of their untutored, marginalized peers and became staunch advocates, embracing them as fellow artists.

de Young Museum
June 3, 2017 to April 1, 2018

"Revelations: Art from the African American South" celebrates the debut of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta of 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States.

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 International Folk Art
November 16, 2007 – May 11, 2008
This exhibition puts the Gee’s Bend quilts in context by featuring the work of master quilt maker Mary Lee Bendolph and those she influenced, accompanied by the art of artists working in the found-object tradition who are part of her artistic sphere, including Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley.
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.

Gee's Bend: From Quilt to Print

In 2006 and 2007, The Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE) commissioned four Gee's Bend quilters to produce prints for display in fifty U.S. Embassies around the world.

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."

The Quilts of Gee's Bend

The Quilts of Gee's Bend documentary accompanies the major exhibitions of Gee's Bend quilts. Set in the quiltmaker's homes and yard, and told through the women's voices, this music-filled, 28-minute documentary takes viewers inside the art and fascinating living history of a uniquely American community and art form.