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Legendary Gee’s Bend quilters bring magnificent, humble creations to KC

Gee's Bend quilters visit Kansas City on Friday

China and Mary Ann Pettway of the famed Gee's Bend Quilters Collective visited the Black Archives of Mid-America on Friday to teach their quilting techniques, meet fellow quilters, sing folk songs and tell the stories of their life
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China and Mary Ann Pettway of the famed Gee's Bend Quilters Collective visited the Black Archives of Mid-America on Friday to teach their quilting techniques, meet fellow quilters, sing folk songs and tell the stories of their life

Mary Ann and China Pettway are bringing the Quilts of Gee’s Bend to Kansas City April 8-10.

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, if you haven’t heard, are the fabric equivalent of a Picasso or Matisse. The quilters don’t use patterns and their unusual designs are often dictated by the size and shape of randomly torn scraps of fabric. Art critics and historians widely consider them among the most important African-American visual and cultural contributions to the history of art in the United States.

The modernist patterns and unorthodox fabrics tell a story of struggle, survival and making do in ways that are humble yet magnificent. I’ve been a huge fan of the quilts since seeing an exhibit of them in 2003 at the Whitney Museum in New York. To me, they are fascinating and beautiful.

Mary Ann and China, who are not related, will show and sell the quilts, sing, tell stories and demonstrate their quilting. Their visit was organized by the Rev. Chase Peeples of Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ in conjunction with the Black Archives of Mid-America. Peeples said his church reached out to the Black Archives as a way to bridge the gap between the communities east and west of Troost.

The women will appear at both places in free events, though donations will be taken.

I spoke to Mary Ann by phone recently.

She divides her time selling quilts at the Gee’s Bend Quilt collective and sewing them in her home, something she does all hours of the day and night.

“My aunt, she called me one night, and I guess I had the spirit to (quilt) so I had my sewing all set up and she heard me and said, ‘Are you sewing?’ While we were talking, I was sewing. That was 11 at night,” she said.

Gee’s Bend is an isolated, predominantly African-American hamlet surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River, just southwest of Selma. It’s named after Joseph Gee, who established a cotton plantation there during the early 19th century with 17 African-American slaves. He sold the property several years later to Mark H. Pettway who brought another 100 slaves with him.

Many of the slaves, who often took the Pettway surname, stayed on at the plantation as sharecroppers after emancipation. For many years during the early 20th century, a ferry served Gee’s Bend, but it was unreliable, then discontinued during the 1960s as punishment for the residents who demonstrated during the civil rights movement.

The quilting techniques have been handed down from generation to generation since the mid-19th century and involve using scraps of corduroy, wool, denim, cotton and other fabric from worn-out work clothes.

Mary Ann remembers her mother teaching her to piece together a quilt when she was a little girl.

“I blocked it and mom put it together. She called it a Monkey Wrench,” she says, referring to one of several general Gee’s Bend pattern designs. “When I got my house built in 1980, she gave it to me. And I didn’t take care of it so it got torn apart, and I threw it in the garbage. When we was coming up, I think maybe we was tired of seeing quilts.”

Mary Ann stopped making them for awhile, and went to work in sewing factories in Selma.

In 2005, after the sewing factories closed, she became interested in quilting again, mostly because it offered her a chance to travel. By then the quilts, with their distinctive patterns and names like Sears Corduroy, Housetop & Bricklayer and Lazy Gal had become famous.

“My grandmother kept telling me about the trips she was taking around the country with the other quilters to show and sell them, and I wanted to do that,” she says.

Seven years earlier, William S. Arnett, a collector and curator of African-American vernacular art who lived in Atlanta, saw a photograph of one of the quilts draped over a woodpile. According to a 2006 article in Smithsonian Magazine , he was so impressed with the quilt and its originality that he tracked down its creator, Annie Mae Young, in Gee’s Bend. Arnett showed up unannounced on Young’s doorstep, asking about the quilt.

Young had burned some quilts the week before (smoke from burning cotton is said to drive off mosquitoes), the story stated, and at first Young thought the quilt in the photograph had been among them. But she found it the next day and offered it to Arnett for free.

He insisted on buying several of the quilts for a few thousand dollars. Word quickly spread that there was a crazy white man in Gee’s Bend paying good money for the “raggedy old quilts.”

Arnett helped arrange the first major exhibit of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in September 2002. Since then, they’ve been shown in major museums around the country.

Today, Gee’s Bend is a tourist destination, with visitors mostly coming by a far more reliable ferry. And Mary Ann mostly uses store-bought fabrics, though she recalls with fondness the fabrics her ancestors used including scraps from her brothers’ worn out “demireans.” She stopped and giggled at the made-up word.

“We used some words that no one else would understand, but we understood it because that’s how we would talk,” she said.

She did note that she’s been stockpiling her old sweatpants and might make a quilt with those.

“You never know when that might come up,” she said.

About two dozen women on Gee’s Bend continue quilting and the quilt co-op typically has between 200 and 300 quilts in stock. Mary Ann and China will bring about 20 quilts to Kansas City, as well as smaller items. All will be for sale.

“Oh, they expensive, I can tell you that right now,” Mary Ann said. “Prices range from $200 for a wall-hanger. And a twin to queen or king, they’re $900 and up,” she said, adding that one quilt sold for $27,000. “But then someone told me that if Picasso can sell a piece of his work for $35,000 (sic), why can’t I?”

Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian: 816-234-4780, @CindyBGregorian

Types of Gee’s Bend Quilts

Housetop & Bricklayer: Quilts dominated by concentric squares are known as Housetops. They’re a favorite pattern for the Quilts of Gee’s Bend. The quilter begins with a piece of solid cloth or pieced motif to anchor the quilt and then connects the end of a strip’s long side to the short side of a neighboring strip, forming a kind of frame surrounding the central patch.

Abstraction & Improvisation: Quilters usually begin with a basic form, then use unexpected patterns, unusual colors and surprising rhythms.

Lazy Gal: Simple patterns made of strips.

Meet the Gee’s Bend Quilters

Friday, April 8: Black Archives of Mid-America, 1722 E. 17th Terrace. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Saturday, April 9: Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ, 65th Street and Brookside Road. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The quilters also will be at the 10 a.m. Sunday services.