A Multi-Generational Gee’s Bend Story, Told by One Quilt



Missouri Pettway, “Blocks and Strips Work-Garments Quilt” (1942), cotton, corduroy, and cotton sacking, 90 × 69 inches, Nationwide Gallery of Artwork, Patrons’ Everlasting Fund and Reward of the Souls Grown Deep Basis (courtesy Hazel Marks)

In Alabama’s Gee’s Bend (Boykin), a quilt is greater than only a mattress masking that retains sleeping our bodies heat. With Stitching Love and Loss: A Gee’s Bend Quilt, Lisa Gail Collins merges textile and testimony in a compassionate exploration of 1 quilt and its considerable legacy. The story begins with Missouri Pettway (1902–1980), who, whereas mourning the premature demise of her husband, Nathaniel Pettway, in 1942, started stitching a quilt from his previous work clothes. Pettway’s “Blocks and Strips Work-Garments Quilt” (1942) is comprised of cream plain weave cotton, pink corduroy, blue denim, and grey cotton cloth rectilinear shapes — all scraps from previous trousers and shirts Nathaniel wore whereas farming. In piecing collectively the quilt, Missouri’s arms tended to her aching coronary heart in a profoundly inventive and invaluable gesture. Collins locates Pettway’s quilt and others prefer it in numerous milieus: A approach to maintain individuals heat on chilly Alabama winter nights, a snug place for youngsters to take a seat whereas listening to their grandmother’s tales, and an art work on show at artwork museums in the USA and past. 

Stitching Love and Loss is an interdisciplinary research as multilayered because the pieced-together quilt at its core. Chapter one, “Woven inside the Land,” narrates the historical past of the Pettway household, the group of Gee’s Bend, and the entwined tragedies of slavery and Indigenous dispossession that created the impoverished farming group within the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Collins particulars the circumstances of Black captivity and Indigenous displacement earlier than Alabama was even a state on the origins of what’s now Gee’s Bend, named after enslaver Joseph Gee, who arrived in 1816m simply two years after the land had been seized from the Muscogee Nation. Past historic trauma, Gee’s Bend is a web site of robust matrilineal lineage, creativity, resilience, and the artwork of quilting handed down by generations in the identical Pettway residence.

Chapter two, “Carrying Historical past and Reminiscence,” recounts Arlonzia Pettway’s childhood reminiscences — cherished oral histories of her mom’s quilt. The next 4 chapters — “In search of Sanctuary,” “Lined with Labor,” “Shared Care and Prayer,” and “Sacred Utility” — convey the making of Missouri Pettway’s quilt as a web site of mourning and particular person therapeutic, collaborative stitching practices, an enduring legacy of laboring with/for cotton, and the very important utility of each making and utilizing the quilt. Collins’s exact but poetic prose evokes gut-wrenching photographs of a spouse and mom tending to her wounds and feeling her husband’s presence by the fabric remnants of his life, together with each his clear garments and dirt stains on the knee of his denim work garb (from farming).

Arlonzia Pettway on her porch (photograph by Linda Day Clark)

Together with the “stitching” that intertwines the totally different fabric items and serves as a metaphor for intimacy and kinship, different verbs are related to the e book, such because the labor of “gathering, carrying, and forwarding” undertaken by Arlonzia Pettway. Some tales are harrowing, corresponding to one Arlonzia instructed an interviewer whereas in her 80s. She recalled a second from her childhood through which her mom paused the quilt she was engaged on to rapidly sew a sack that could possibly be used to cover their household’s belongings — candy potatoes and corn — from a Nice Melancholy-era raid of their residence after listening to the cries of neighbors having their property seized. Contemplating the implications of those tales and others, Collins emphasizes the life-sustaining work of sewing: “each making and making do have been integral to the social cloth and the group’s energy and survival.”

In a coda, “Pulled to this Place,” Collins expresses honest concern concerning the passing of Pettway’s quilt and others from Gee’s Bend between Western museum collections. Poignantly, she asks: “… was Missouri Pettway’s quilt — her tender textile elegy, which carries the palpable presence of its maker; her beloved husband, whom she sought to recollect; and their eldest daughter, who shared its story and the reminiscence of its making — really theirs to provide?” Collins is reflecting on the 2020 acquisition of the quilt into the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork assortment after a long time of being stored in storage with temporary stints on exhibition. It could actually really feel troubling when huge establishments purchase work from under-resourced communities as a result of, naturally, one might marvel if the individuals of Gee’s Bend are compensated ethically as their work circulates.

Within the e book’s closing phrases, Collins ponders: “… it appears to me that what issues most is honoring the wants and needs of the descendants of the creator of this wholly valuable utility quilt.” That Missouri Pettway’s daughter Arlonzia (1916–2002), additionally an esteemed quilter, took pleasure in her mom’s quilt being collected and displayed in museums assuages emotions of discomfort, however it’s value taking severely the moral questions on the core of Collins’s unease. A future through which Black descendants may make claims on the artwork of their kin is simply one of many many gorgeous photographs conjured by the writer’s considerate writing. Even when acquisitions had been technically authorized, transferring ahead will we witness descendants of African American artists advocating for the return of their household’s keepsakes? 

Arthur Rothstein, “Footpaths” (1937), two of Nathaniel and Missouri Pettway’s kids (Library of Congress)
Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective in 2014 (photograph by Lisa Gail Collins)

Stitching Love and Loss: A Gee’s Bend Quilt by Lisa Gail Collins (2023) is revealed by College of Washington Press and is on the market on-line and in bookstores.


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