1920 - 1982

Pearlie Kennedy Pettway

Boykin, Alabama

Siblings Houston Kennedy and Pearlie Kennedy (1920-1982) married siblings Mary Elizabeth Pettway and Horace Pettway. Quiltmaker Pearlie's youngest son, Robert, and daughter Florida Irby describe their mother's many abilities.

ROBERT: My mother didn't go in the field. She cooked, and cleaned house, and made quilts, and raised us children. There was sixteen of us. She know how to make you do what she need you to do—keep the yard clean, mind the flowers, she tell us to go in the woods and get that kind of bush to make a brush broom. She never say a bad word except for telling you she would whup your tail. Us little boys be jumping on the bed, and pillow fighting and stuff, and she come pulling at us, telling us not to tear up the mattress she sewed, or the quilt.

She make the mattress with corn shucks—she make us go in the barn, get them corn shucks and take off the hard part, get the soft parts. Lots of work putting them shucks in the hole on one side the mattress, then fluffing them out. So, she get mad if we tore it up. She pull it off the bed and catch some naked tail. She didn't care if us boys had fun, but she could whup some tail, and she would.

I do remember that Mama sometimes wake us up late, late in the night, jumping up happy, shouting. We didn't know what going on. She was just praising the Lord! Done that all the time.

Mama made a lot of quilts for keeping us children warm. I remember sleeping under one of them every night. Cold nights, maybe a bunch. Made them things out of coverall pants or anything she could find. After clothes couldn't be fixed no more—skirts, dresses—it all end up a quilt.

FLORIDA: What I remember most was Mama's cooking-good cooking. She taught me to cook. She made the best biscuits. We talked about that the other day, said we wish we could have some of Mama's biscuits, but it's a good thing she's not around, 'cause we really don't need to be eating them. She sewed, too, made clothes, dresses for school, make it out of cloth from Weatherby's in Camden, and she used twenty-five-pound flour sacks. What was left over, take that and make quilts. My sisters, aunts, everybody made quilts except me—I hated to quilt. Quilts on the frame always be in the way when I came home from school. Mama always said when I go away she weren't going to give meany quilts, but she did. Papa was Horace Pettway. His sisters made quilts—Mary Elizabeth [Kennedy] and Malissia [Pettway]. Mama's friends mostly were quilters, too: Nettie Kennedy, Ella Bendolph, Magdalene Wilson, Arcola and Creola. Papa's sister, Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, was married to Houston Kennedy, and Houston Kennedy was Mama's brother.

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.

Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.
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."