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The women of Gee's Bend

"I remember when I was 6 and I tried to do my first Nine Patch. I didn't know what I was doing," recalls Mary Ann Pettway, 52. "I was just trying to be like Mama. That's when I started learning how to make quilts. We didn't have any beds to sleep on. We used quilts on the floor, four or five layers."

Pettway was one of seven Alabama women in Ashland on July 4 for the opening of "Visual Jazz," quilts and works on paper by the women of Gee's Bend, on exhibit through Sept. 14 at the Schneider Museum of Art on the Southern Oregon University campus. The women are members of a collective of rural African-American quilt makers who show their work in museums around the country.

The quilts of Gee's Bend are easy to appreciate, with their bright bands of color vibrating with an exuberance that can't be contained. Appreciation increases, however, when you understand that this exuberance grew from the poorest, least hopeful of places.

A sharp turn in the Alabama River all but surrounds the small peninsula of Gee's Bend. Most of the 700 residents are direct descendants of the slaves who worked on the Pettway plantation, and many still have the Pettway name. After emancipation, they stayed on as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, living a life decades behind the rest of the country.

"We quilted by kerosene until the 1960s and toted water until the '70s," explains China Pettway, 57.

Their geographic and cultural isolation allowed a unique multi-generational art form to develop. Likened to the works of Henri Matisse and Paul Klee, and hailed by the New York Times as "miraculous works of modern art," the quilts of Gee's Bend are acclaimed for their honesty, ingenuity and spirit.

Despite their success, the women of Gee's Bend still make quilts the way they always have.

"We make what we want to make, not what the world expects from a quilt," says Loretta Bennett, 48.

For generations, their design choices were dictated by poverty. Using worn cloth and work clothes, "old shirtsleeves, britches and dress tailings ... every little good spot you could find," says Nettie Young, 92, in a documentary interview, they played with placement and patterns until, out of necessity, beauty emerged.

The quilts of Gee's Bend shine with the spirit of women who are larger than their limitations. They are a celebration of innovation in the face of deprivation, a testament to creativity unfettered by life.

Today, Gee's Bend quilts and prints hang alongside the works of well-known artists. When asked whether they feel like artists, the women of Gee's Bend answer with a long, drawn-out "noooo."

"But," admits Louisiana Bendolph, 48, "when I go to our exhibits and see our quilts on the wall, I realize I'm part of something bigger. I'm learning how to use that word 'pride,' to know that some things I do are worthy of being proud."

Bennett agrees. "I'm beginning to learn. I saw a quote, 'Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.'

"I'm starting to learn that."

Katherine Hannon is a freelance writer living in Medford.

The women of Gee's Bend