Famous Gee's Bend quilters come to teach, sing at Alabama Folk School

Mary Ann Pettway took a long detour from quilting. She learned how from her mother at age seven, but stopped during the years she attended business college and then worked as a seamstress in a clothing factory. When the factory closed, she began quilting again. Today she’s one of the members of the world-famous Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective, along with her cousin China Pettway. The two taught workshops last week for the Alabama Folk School at Camp McDowell in Nauvoo. Mary Ann says it was her grandson, not quite three years old, who inspired her in 1995 to start seriously quilting again. “I was babysitting him,” she recalls. “I had a quilt I was working on, spread out on the bed, and he said, ‘Grandma, that’s pretty. I like it.’ ”That was the longest sentence I’d ever heard him speak. I looked at him and said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ So that really encouraged me to keep making my quilts.” Nowadays the group is cited in a Wikipedia article in which experts call their work “unique, and one of the most important African-American visual and cultural contributions to the history of art in the U.S.” The Wiki page also refers to their quilts as “spectacular”; they’re popular with collectors and hang in museums around the country. Gee’s Bend is a community just southeast of Selma, population 700, and the last time it had been in the news was when Martin Luther King visited in 1965. But in recent years members of the Collective have been the subject of art books and have taught classes from Oregon to Houston and beyond. “In the old days,” Mary Ann says, “our mother used the old clothes that the children had worn out. She’d take an old dress tail or shirt tail, and with the best pieces they made quilts.” ”That’s right,” says China, the quieter of the two cousins. She was named after the country of China, she says. “I didn’t know I was poor. We always had something to eat and clothes on our back. That’s why I appreciate these days now.” Last week the cousins walked throughout a large Folk School classroom, instructing and laughing, inspecting students’ work and answering questions. “If you’re right-handed,” one of them tells a beginner, “then you stitch from right to left...” A language of its own The world of quilting with its history dating back to the 1800s has a language all its own for various styles: “Bear Paw,” “Nine Block,” “Housetop,” “Monkey Wrench,” “Lazy Girl,” and “Crazy Block” are just a few. But the Pettways also make their own patterns for quilts that are the first, and only, of their kind. Some quilters begin from patterns drawn on paper, but Mary Ann says that method’s not for her and China. “I tried drawing on paper, but it didn’t work. Because when I started putting the quilt together my mind had changed all over again.” In one instance, “I love triangles, and when I put one next to another patch they looked like the number one, so I called the quilt pattern ‘Number One.’” What standard do they use in judging the beauty of other people’s quilts? “The way they put the colors together,” China says. “Like the one back there, the Eight-Pointed Star...” She points to a quilt from another maker that hangs on a wall above the Folk School’s foyer. “I’d never seen one like that before.” “People ask us what made our quilts different from anybody else, but all of them are the same layers,” Mary Ann tells a visitor during a coffee break. She picks up three sugar packets to illustrate. “You’ve got the bottom piece, the liner. Then the middle is the batting and the top layer is the patches.” ‘Just a gift from God’ ”We didn’t know our quilts were art,” China says “We didn’t study art in school but we can make quilts. And we didn’t go to school to learn to teach, but we can teach. It’s just a gift from God.” During the week of workshops, China and Mary Ann occasionally entertain the students by singing a duet of a gospel song. They both started singing in choirs at a young age, and are considered some of the best vocalists in Gee’s Bend and the surrounding area. “My favorite song,” Mary Ann says, “is ‘Give Me My Flowers While I Live.’ Because it’s so true. This appreciation for our work is flowers that people are giving us. Y’all reporting on this story is flowers. And our quilts are flowers we want to share out in the world.” “That’s right,” China adds, in her soft voice. “I love Camp McDowell,” Mary Ann says. “They cook the best food; I love it. And the folks are so nice.” The numbers enrolled in the classes show that the Pettways’ love is returned. The two cousins will be back for another workshop Oct. 13-16. Registration is now open at www.alfolkschoolcom. “Hosting Mary Ann and China is an example of how the Alabama Folk School strives to ensure the creation of folk arts,” says school director Lisa Marie Ryder, “by providing artisans an opportunity to practice their trade, while also passing along their skills to others who want to learn. “When we teach skills taught for generations, like the creation of quilts from old clothing and scraps, we share and honor the unique and beautiful traditions that not only represent our past, but are the root of so much of the art and culture we see today. “Our goal at the Alabama Folk School is to see folk art and music traditions not only surviving, but thriving.” Dale Short’s email address is dale.short@gmail.com