1939 -

Mensie Lee Pettway


    Unlike most quiltmakers in Rehoboth, Mensie Lee Pettway had a number of family members who influenced her formative years, including her paternal grandmother, Hannah Wilcox (1896-1973), and her mother, America Irby (1916-1993).

    I was born here in Rehoboth in 1939. Pretty much everybody worked in the fields. We picked cotton, pulled corn, stripped sugar cane. I was the oldest child of the three, and I had to plow the mule. Plowing to me was the hardest kind of work. I used to go up to Orrville to pull cotton at the end of the season for the white folks, the Joe McHugh family. I loved cooking and pulling cotton. I could pull two hundred pounds in a day. You get three dollars a hundred back then. That was a lot of money around 1958 when I was in the tenth grade. I couldn’t go to school like they do it now, year round. I had to go to the fields around about March and would go to school November through February, got about four good months of schooling every year. I graduated in high school in 1960 when I was about twenty-one.

    I got married the next year to Robert Lee Pettway. He was four years older than me and came from down in Gee’s Bend. He was a farmer, and I worked in the fields with him until after my second daughter was born. I haven’t worked in the fields since then, 1964. I don’t miss it though. We ended up with seven children.

    When they started the quilting bee in Estelle Witherspoon’s house, I started with them. It was about twenty or twenty-five of us. I worked at the bee the whole time, up to now. My job at the bee was mostly to cut the patterns. I would cut three or four quilts a day depending on the pattern. The ladies couldn’t sew them as fast as that so sometimes I would help sew. I never did quilt though. I can, but I never did. My grandmother Hannah Wilcox and her friends used to come around and do the quilting for the peoples in their group and quilt my tops for me. My mother used to do the same. I never had to quilt so I didn’t do it, and never wanted to.

    When I would come home here from the work at the bee, I made quilts most all the time. I piled up a lot of tops here in those days, and then stopped making them for a long time. I just started back a few years ago. What I make here is my own designs. What I do is what they call "patchwork." I call it "this and that." I may start off looking like planning a "Nine Patch," but then I take this, take that, take patches, blocks, strips, and seeing where I am going, laying my pattern as I go.

    I start out with about an eighteen-inch block. That block give you a start with the color and design. I may put that block at the end or in the middle, and then I may go around it and keep going around until it got big enough. Sometime I may make a bunch of blocks and put them together. Sometime I may start it at the bottom and go up like a stepladder. But not ever the same way twice.

    Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

    Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

    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.

    Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

    Gee's Bend: The Women and Their Quilts

    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.

    Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

    Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt

    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."