1941 -

Rita Mae Pettway

Boykin, Alabama

Rita Mae Pettway was raised by her grandmother, quiltmaker Annie E. Pettway.

They been calling me "Rabbit" ever since I was a little girl. They say that when I started walking I started running, so I got that nickname. When I was coming up, I had three aunties, and we all lived there in one room together. Ella, Nellie Mae, and Mary Lisa. They were Ed O. and Annie E. Pettway children, and I was raised up with them like they was my sisters. I was four years old when my mama passed. The only thing they told me was she got killed. Her name was Louisiana. I was raised up by my mama’s parents. My uncle Willie Quill lived with us, too, like a brother. We was all born right next to here in one of those old plank houses with the windows you just push it out like a door. My granddaddy built another house for us right here some time in the ’40s, and I’m still living in that house.

I learnt all of what I know from growing up watching my grandmother. I watched her cook, had to learn to wash on a rub board, learn to use a smoothing iron. Started in the fields when I was seven years old. Hoed cotton, chopped cotton, picked cotton. It was the only kind of work I had to do, and I loved to do it. It didn’t bother me none. I would pick two-hundred-and-something pounds of cotton every day. I felt pretty good at the end of the day. I still had to come back and clean up and cook—whatever part I didn’t finish when I went in the field in the morning. On Sundays we went to church first thing in the morning. The church they had us going to was over in Buddy Clarence Pettway’s pasture. It was an old plank church built just like the houses, same kind of windows. All my friends used to get together right out here after church. We was writing stuff, or making mud cakes, jump rope, had a plank we jumped on like a seesaw. Onliest thing we did after everything else was done, we sit by the fireplace in the wintertime and piece up quilts. Me and my grandmama Annie. She didn’t have no pattern to go by; she just cut them by the way she know how to make them. We did it by a kerosene lamp.

The way we used to quilt them, it ain’t the way we do it now. I have horses now, but we had the frame; we had four frames, one on each side of the room; tied it up to the rafters. When we got ready to use the frames, we untied them and eased them down to the level we going to sit down to quilt at. When you done for the day, you hash it back up to the rafters. Nellie and Mary Lisa, they quilted with us, too, right in the same room. Piecing them up, you do that by yourself; but quilting, we all did it together. The first quilt I made on my own, I was fourteen. It was a "Nine Patch" quilt. I been kept making quilts ever since then.

I graduated from high school when I was nineteen. I couldn’t go to school that regular ’cause I had to work in the field. We went on days when it rained.

I take care of grandchildren and cows now, and that’s about it. I work in my garden. I feel good about living where I live and about putting my children through school, hard as that was, living on a farm. Without welfare we couldn’t have got by, but we made it. I am happy the way it is. It’s been a pretty good life.

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.

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.

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.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
June 8, 2019 to November 17, 2019

As embodiments of the African American experience and cultural legacies, the works of art featured in Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South are rooted in African aesthetic legacies, familial tradition, and communal ethos. Previously marginalized as “folk or self-taught” art, they now take their rightful place as significant contributors to the canon of American Modernism.

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."