The community of Boykin, Alabama, known to many as Gee's Bend due to its proximity to a bend in the Alabama River, is home to some of the most highly regarded quiltmakers in America. These include Mary Lee Bendolph, Lucy Mingo, and Loretta Pettway, three of the chief quilters from the oldest generation of quilters who represent this profound cultural legacy. Described by the New York Times as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced," the quilts are known for their improvisational and inventive quality, often being compared to 20th-century abstract paintings.
Mary Lee Bendolph, born in 1935, learned to quilt from her mother. She split her time as a child between working in the fields and attending school. While quilting, Bendolph prefers to use fabric from old clothing to avoid wastefulness, and her style of quiltmaking tends to mix geometric shapes, like rectangles and squares, with abstract designs.
Mary Lee Bendolph: Housetop Variation. Courtesy of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Steve Pitkin-Pitkin StudioEnlarge
Loretta Pettway, born in 1942, made her first quilt when she was 11 years old with guidance from her grandmother, stepmother, and other female relatives. Pettway tends to use the bricklayer pattern in her quilts, which resembles a pyramid or set of steps. Two quilts by Loretta Pettway and one by Mary Lee Bendolph were in the group chosen for the U.S. Postal Stamp Collection issued in 2006. Today, paintings of these quilts are part of the Quilt Mural Trail, leading visitors around the cultural and natural landscape of Gee's Bend.
Loretta Pettway: Blocks and Strips. Courtesy of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Steve Pitkin-Pitkin StudioEnlarge
A homemaking educator who was born in 1931 and worked for the extension service for more than 20 years, Lucy Mingo has served as a leading quiltmaking instructor, mentoring apprentices and students all over the country. In 2006, Mingo received a Folk Arts Apprenticeship grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts to teach quiltmaking to her daughter, Polly Raymond.
Lucy Mingo: Log Cabin, Straight Furrows. Courtesy of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Steve Pitkin-Pitkin StudioEnlarge
The quiltmaking tradition of Gee's Bend dates back to the early 19th century when female slaves used strips of cloth to make bedcovers. Gee's Bend's quilts were first noticed nationally in the 1960s when the women were members of the Freedom Quilting Bee which was organized during the Civil Rights movement to help produce a much-needed income stream into the community. The quilts made by the quilting bee were sold throughout the U.S. In the early 1980s, the staff from the Birmingham Public Library revisited the area as part of a photography and oral history project. Mary Lee Bendolph, Lucy Mingo, and Loretta Pettway's quilts have been on exhibit all across the nation, including exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.