1921 - 2010

Sue Willie Seltzer

Alberta, Alabama

Like several other quiltmakers, Sue Willie Seltzer was born in the Gee’s Bend area before moving north a few miles to Rehoboth. Her son Benjamin is married to the Boykin postmaster, Bettie Bendolph Seltzer.

I was born down there in Jones’s, way down there further, toward Gee’s Bend. I come up the hard way. I worked in the fields and didn’t get nothing. There’s a white man way up there in Orrville, and us used to walk to pick his cotton, and didn’t get nothing. I come up the hard way. Not easy. Hard. Us stayed up there till we got through picking cotton, and then us came back home.

My mother moved from over in Big Swamp, they called the place. Moved down there in Orrville. She married Archie Winfield. Him and her separated. She started to farming by herself, nobody but her and the children, four of us. She started off, she didn’t have no mule. My sister used to do the plowing. A man was living over the creek and he had a steer and let my mama had that steer to work her crop—cotton, corn, and peas, and everything like that. Something to eat. Us had something to eat but didn’t have nothing to wear. And us had to walk through the creek up to Orrville, go that way. Ten, twelve miles through there, half-a-day walk. Mama had some sisters up there; we stay with them to pick cotton. A hundred pounds of cotton—she had a brother stay up there, and every time he weigh up cotton I wouldn’t have a hundred pounds. Weigh the cotton every evening. And my uncle told me if I didn’t have a hundred pounds of cotton that next evening, he going to whip my drawers off. And I picked that hundred pounds of cotton—first hundred pounds I ever picked in my life. I was about twelve or thirteen years old. He started me picking that hundred pounds of cotton, and I be picking a hundred pounds ever since. I got that hundred pounds of cotton ’cause he was left-handed and I didn’t want that left hand to whip me.

Lord, I been working all my life in the field and ain’t got nothing. I didn’t get nothing. My mama would take a switch—me and my brother would be in the field and us could name every bird what come by—and she put that switch in her apron, said, "Now I ain’t going to meet y’all no more, ain’t going to help y’all no more, and y’all better be to the end when I get there." And us did. Us did. Us beat her to the end. I call it "the hard way," but God still brought me here, and I thank him. I thank him. Oh yeah.

One time me and I think it was about five of us started to quilting from one house to another. Quilt one or two for one person, go to the next house, do the same thing. Way back yonder. From house to house, quilting quilts. If they got the quilts ready, us used to do it that way for them. I didn’t start piecing quilts till I was thirty, forty years old. I didn’t start young. I just tried to survive. You learn to do things from other people. You see them do it, you learn. If you ain’t, you don’t want to learn. I can’t piece by no pattern. A lot of pieces, you see, I can’t get them together. One girl’s daughter give me a heap of her quilt patterns, but I ain’t tried to learn nothing ’cause I can’t put them three-corner and four-corner pieces together. I get some blocks sometimes other peoples put together, give them to me, and I put them blocks in my quilts. I put somebody’s blocks, my cousin Edna, and an old lady Annie, lived up there, put them in, put some variety in. See, ain’t no way in the world I can cut them little pieces. My head ain’t good enough.

You ain’t tired of hearing me talk? I say I hold the view of the world that it’s hard but it’s fair. Hard but fair. Oh yeah.

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.

After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Alabama produced an impressive number of African American self-taught artists whose work particularly focused on the Civil Rights Movement and on aspects of history that led to it. This happened, in part, because the action was right on their doorsteps: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma March, the murder of four little girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It was a spontaneous response to an emerging opportunity, and it occurred all over the South.

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.

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.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
June 8, 2019 to September 2, 2019

The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents Souls Grown Deep: Artists of the African American South, an exhibition including paintings, sculptures, and quilts that celebrates the recent acquisition of 24 works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

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."