Hidden stars of Alabama: the Gee’s Bend Quilters

Nested in a crook of the river Alabama, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, Gee’s Bend definitely isn’t a touristic destination. A few houses scattered around, not a store in sight, barely any phone service… Yet every now and then, a car from out of state stops in front of an unnamed wooden building, on county road 29.
That’s exactly what I do, with a friend of mine, on a February morning, after a long drive. We’re both really excited to be here: we’re about to enter the heart of traditional African-American quilt-making.

Miss Nancy and some of her creations.

Inside, the room is unpretentious, quilts are loosely folded on plastic tables and shelves. We’re greeted by meet “Miss Nancy” and “Miss Emma”, namely Nancy Pettway and Emma Pettway. They’re both members of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. Quilt-making is the craft of sewing together old clothes and fabrics, to recycle them into useful and beautiful household items, like blankets.

In this small community, women have been making quilts for over a century, in a tradition passed down through generations. Each quilt is unique, and each quilter has her own style. With much humor and a humbling simplicity, Miss Nancy and Miss Emma tell us about their lives, quilting, family, and having their craft and tradition recognized as art.

Isolated, deep in rural, poverty-ridden Alabama, Gee’s Bend has long been ignored by the rest of the country. Most of its inhabitants are descendants of slaves from the local Pettway plantation (many quilters, like Miss Nancy and Miss Emma, still share that name). Here, the poverty rate is about 60%.

Miss Emma, and one of her famous “Pig in the Pen” design. This one sold the day we visited ($1,500)/

But in 2002, “discovered” by an art collector, their quilts gained international recognition. They’ve been called some of the “most miraculous works of modern art America” by the New York Times. Quilts from Gee’s Bend now hang in some of the most famous and prestigious museums in the US.

But here, as we chat lightly with these two women artists, my friend and I go around the room, unfolding one beautiful quilt after another. It’s a most precious and unsettling feeling to be able to touch them like it was nothing!
Some are true masterpieces. Each is signed and has a hand-written label with its title, year, creator’s name and price. Prices range from $200 to over $15,000, and are decided by the quilter herself. 75% of it goes to the quilter, the rest to the collective.

Now, I know Gee’s Bend is a bit out of the way from just about anywhere, but if you’re ever in that area, don’t pass on this amazing opportunity to meet the world-class artists, incredible, lively, fun women of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective.

 

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This article is based on an extract of our next feminist travel guide, covering the US.

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