1917 - 2015

Mertlene Perkins

Alberta, Alabama

Although Alabama Route 5 in Alberta is now home to several important quiltmakers including Polly Bennett and Gearldine Westbrook, Mertlene Perkins is the only one who has spent her entire life there.

I was born two miles from here, in Gastonburg, and grew up in Alberta. My father was Isom Martin and my mother was Maggie Tripp before she married my father. Daddy worked on the railroad and Mama farmed. When I was big enough I worked in the fields, reckon I was about seven or eight years old, helped doing something in there. I enjoyed it. Anywhere my mother be, I enjoyed it, helping her. Raised cotton, corn, peanuts, potatoes. Had a garden. Mostly we ate what we raised, or give away.

I went to school in Prairie, went to Macedonia out there, stayed in school for nine years. Married Herman Perkins. We farmed around here, worked the fields, rented the land. Sometimes we come out ahead.

Making quilts was my enjoyment. I been doing that since I was old enough. My mother taught me. My grandmother, too. But I just make up my own quilts. I really don't follow nobody's ideas but mine.

I been satisfied with my life. Never had much trouble. Never deal with white people much. Not many of them around here. We always rent land from the colored peoples since I was married. I got married when I was nineteen. I'm the mother of twelve, nine living. Lot of changes take place from before. Living is alright now, but it was more fun back.

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.

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.

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."