1922 - 2003

Polly Bennett

Alberta, Alabama

A creator of precisely patterned quilts and free-form, abstract works of rectangular strips—"get-togethers," she calls them—Polly Bennett has maintained this diversity of style since her earliest quilts from the 1930s.

A lot of my life I done forgot. I was born down in the Bend in 1922. My mother, she name Mary Mooney. Daddy was named Minniefield Mooney. Mama stayed down there with him until I was six years old and they separated. We moved up to a place owned by a white man named Dennis Will. We farmed up there: cotton, corn, peanuts, sweet potato, millet—some of them call it sorghum—cane used for syrup. We made what they call ribbon cane syrup. When I was grown I got given a job nursing for a white family—that's a lazy job, sitting down. It's easy after field work, too easy for me. I love to stir around. Then the cook, she left; I took the job cooking. I worked for two, three families. I worked long as I could afford satisfaction. When they start to complain, I might go someplace else. The last job I had, I worked for her for thirty-one years down in Gastonburg. Ora Laird. They say she was a mean lady, but I could get along with anybody once I found out their ways. I enjoyed working for her because she didn't ever tell me what to do. Not even what to cook for dinner. She say, "I ain't no cook. I eat. You the cook; cook what you want to." I never think I'm a good cook, but everywhere I work they said I was a good cook. I hate cooking.

The first time I met my husband, Mark Bennett, was in '42. He was working in Gastonburg, too, for Herbert Wilkinson. After the old man died, his son Herbert Hall Wilkinson Jr. took over, and after that, the grandson Allen. Mark was the foreman for a lot of years, about thirty years. Us married in 1946, lived on the hill over on the Rehoboth road. We had to work hard. It was a tough life sometime, but I loved to work. We had a little farm at first, had a corn patch and watermelons. Mark had his regular job, but we worked the farm, too. Anything a man can do out in the field, I could do. I plowed two steers at a time. Steers are more contrary than a mule. Mark loved to work, too. People respected his work. He's still raising cows and watermelons, and keeping a big garden—at seventy-eight years old.

When I was a girl at home—I reckon I was eight or nine years old—I started making quilts. My mama taught me, show me how to cut the pieces and quilt, too. I call myself making something, but back then what I made be so much longer on one side than the other. I didn't start getting them exactly right for a long while. My first finished quilts, I was about fifteen, sixteen. The first was, I believe, a "Nine Patch." Then I started making what I call a "get-together," just putting pieces together—any color, any sizes. Back in them days, I didn't care how they looked, I just put them together using old clothes mostly, and sometimes go down to Linden and get scraps they were throwing away in the clothes factory. The man over the factory down there let folks go through the throw-away stuff. The dump truck going to come get it anyway.

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.

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.

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."