March 2016
Homeplace & Community

Heritage of Hope

Gee’s Bend Quilts are on exhibit in Decatur.

The highly acclaimed Gee’s Bend quilts are now on exhibit for the people of Decatur to see.

It’s become a "destination tourism" event, said Kathryn Silvestri, marketing/exhibits coordinator for the Carnegie Visual Arts Center on Church Street. As of late January, the registration book showed visitors from as far away as San Francisco and Montana.

 
   

"Reaction has been very positive," she said.

Twenty-eight pieces including quilts, pillows, potholders and quilt squares are on loan from members of the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective through Saturday, March 5.

Teacher and arts specialist Beth Young has worked with Decatur city school youngsters on a mural related to the quilting theme. Four of the Gee’s Bend quilters – Mary Ann Pettway, China Pettway, Lucy Witherspoon and Gloria Hopkins – spent a week in the city, and the local library sponsored a project called the River City Read to encourage children and adults to read the award-winning novel "Returning to Gee’s Bend."

Decatur area quilters have even encouraged people to sew their own 9-by-9-inch squares to further the sense of community. The response was so great that three or four quilts, Young said, may be pieced together by the time all the squares come in.

 
  View from one gallery into another at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center shows a few of the brightly colored quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend. The Carnegie Center, opened in April 2003 after an $800,000 restoration, was originally the Carnegie Library. (All credits: The Carnegie Center)

"One or two of these quilts will be revealed when the Gee’s Bend quilters come to Decatur," she said.

All these events are a citywide collaboration between Young and other representatives including Kim Mitchell, director of the Carnegie Visual Arts Center; David Breland, head of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission; John Allison, Morgan County Archives; Jennifer Bunnell, Alabama Center for the Arts; historians Peggy Towns and Wilhelm Ragland; Stephanie Cates and Rhonda Boland, public relations coordinators for the Decatur Library; local artist Frances Tate; and Tammy Clark, another teacher and art specialist for the Decatur City Schools.

Young conceived the "Heritage of Hope" project. These quilters teach a message of "taking what life gives you and making the most of it."

Indeed, one quilt hanging in the Carnegie Center is composed of pieces from old work clothes – overalls and blue jeans.

 
“Rope With Steps” quilt by Craytree Pettway. Living in poverty, the women of Gee’s Bend in south Alabama have put together their quilts using what they had such as old blue jeans and overalls and scraps of clothing.  

Living in a very poor county, the women used what they had on hand to sew and piece quilts together. Besides work clothes, sections of worn blankets were often chosen or scraps of dresses they had worn.

Their tiny Gee’s Bend community, nestled inside a bend of the Alabama River southwest of Selma, lay connected for decades to the outside world by only one road. Even that link remained unpaved until the late 1960s. Discovered by an art historian, the women and their quilts began their first nationwide tour more than 10 years ago. With American, African-American and Amish influences, the Gee’s Bend quilts have been compared to modern abstract artists like Henri Matisse and Paul Klee.

Other events in the Decatur collaboration included a visit by "Leaving Gee’s Bend" author Irene Latham to some of the schools, a student art contest at the Decatur public library and the quilters attending church in Hillsboro at Canaan Missionary Baptist.

The quilters spent a busy week in Decatur, interacting with students in city schools for three days, holding a workshop with Decatur area quilters and attending a reception where they sang with the Decatur Youth Enrichment Center choir.

"Their message of hope," Young said, "reaches to all (segments) of the community."

The Carnegie Visual Arts Center is located at 207 Church St. NE in Decatur. It’s open daily except Sunday and Monday. The center was home to the city’s Carnegie Library, one of thousands funded across the country by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. To find more information on this exhibit, go to their website, www.carnegiearts.org, or call 256-341-0562.

Maureen Drost is a freelance writer who lives in Huntsville. She was a career journalist for The Decatur Daily and The Huntsville Times.