December 30, 2013

Happy New Year! with Gee's Bend Quilts

Lucy Mooney, Blocks and Strips work-clothes quilt, ca. 1935; cotton, denim, wool, 87 x 68 in.

As I began to ponder my offering of art for my New Year's post––I love to present work each year that has something open hearted about it (last year Frans Masereel, the year before Sonia Delaunay)––I thought of the stunning quilts made by the women of the tiny hamlet of Gee's Bend, Alabama. I still remember the thrill I felt seeing these works about 10 years ago in an exhibition at the Whitney; they seemed surprisingly modern, nothing like the traditional quilts I'd been used to seeing.

Missouri Pettway, Blocks and strips work-clothes quilt, 1942; corduroy, cotton sacking material, 
90 x 69 in.

The earliest Gee's Bend quilts took worn clothes and fabrics and re-made them into vivid works of art: practical yes, but freewheeling in color and composition; uncaring about perfection, so alive in their curves and wobbles. These quilts were collected by William Arnett and are posted on a website about them hosted by Auburn University. You can see many more quilts on the website, from which I downloaded these images. Missouri Pettway's quilt came with a story told by her daughter Arlonzia:
It was when Daddy died. I was about seventeen, eighteen. He stayed sick about eight months and passed on. Mama say, "I going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love."

Lottie Mooney, "Housetop" fourblock "half logcabin" variation, ca. 1940; cotton, rayon,
88 x 73 in.

"For love". To me, all these quilts have a deep feeling of love––for color, for shape––and a sheer joy in creating.

Martha Jane Pettway, "Housetop" nine block "half logcabin" variation, ca. 1945,
72 x 72 in.

The two "Housetop" quilts above show how inventive the quilters were with color and pattern.

Lucy T. Pettway, "Snowball" (quiltmaker's name), ca. 1950; cotton, corduroy, cotton sacking material, 
83 x 85 in. 

The Pettways must be an extraordinary family, since so many by that name have quilts in this collection. Lucy Pettways "snowballs" are energetic and full of bounce, so much more than seems possible in a simple repeat pattern.

Loretta Pettway, String-pieced quilt, 1963; cotton twill and synthetic material, men's clothing,
80 x 74 in.

Sometimes the color was subtle....

Annie Mae Young, Blocks and strips, ca. 1970; cotton, polyester synthetic blends, 83 x 80 in.

....but often bold in contrast. I wonder what Mondrian would have thought of this quilt, a Southern boogie woogie.

Florine Smith, Four block strips, ca. 1975; corduroy, 68 x 81 in. 

This work is so simple yet so powerful, powerful in a joyous, heart-expanding way.

Louella Pettway, "Logcabin" four block variation, ca. 1975; corduroy, 79 x 71 in.

And the color of this...that pink and gray green! And such an marvelously idiosyncratic way of using the log cabin pattern. If you want to see the usual regularity of this quilt pattern, click this link and you'll see what an artist Louella Pettway is. 

Willie "Ma Willie" Abrams, "Roman Stripes" variation, ca. 1975; corduroy, 94 x 76 in. 

This quilt pulses with color, its bars setting up a syncopated rhythm. Looking at all these works makes me happy, which is a good way to begin a new year. I wish you all a year full of joy and love and happiness, and full of creativity, whether in making a piece of art or a meal, or in simply looking about with careful attention.


  1. Great post, wonderful choices! And thank you for that link too.

  2. Gee's Bend quilts do make us happy. Thanks for posting them to remind us to BE happy.
    Happy new year.

  3. thank you Altoon - for this and your many thoughtful posts throughout the year. these are wonderful - and so wonky - and I love that you included the link to the 'regulars' which look so robotic in contrast…..

  4. Love Love Love! Rhythm and joy and yes, happiness! All the best to you in 2014.

  5. They must be in the air- I just got this book out of the library the other day. It feels like an old friend.

  6. Thanks for the nice comments, all.

  7. What a wonderful way to end the year—inspired by the past. I've so enjoyed your thoughts and work throughout the year. Many thanks.

  8. We need quilts to keep us warm today. Brrrr. A nice read on a cold day.

  9. Happy New Year to you too. I love these quilts. I enjoyed them a while back when the show came to Atlanta's High Museum. I am again uplifted seeing them here. The mixture of resourcefulness, creativity and authenticity gives me hope.

  10. Wonderful! Especially I like the gray and tan and blue wedges (pants legs) by Loretta Pettway. The community is so inspiring. Thanks for a great year of art and words, Altoon, happy 2014 to you!

  11. Fantastic, Altoon--I saw the quilts of Rosie Lee Tompkins at the Shelburne Museum several years ago--her "Hit and Miss Strip" still haunts. Your blog, writing, creativity, generosity and heart bring me so much joy! Thank you for brightening our lives and wishing you new adventures in 2014.

  12. A perfect end of year posting! Thank you so much for all of your posts, they add joy to my days!

  13. Thank you so much, my dear readers and friends, for your comments and for your eyes and thoughts throughout the year. Love to you all.