Living Alabama history: North Alabama Agriplex to host celebrated Gee’s Bend Quilters Feb. 27

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Gee’s Bend Quilters Mary Ann Pettway (left) and China Pettway (right), along with historian Mary Allison Haynie will be at the North Alabama Agriplex in Cullman Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. (Photo courtesy of www.geesbendquiltingretreats.com)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The North Alabama Agriplex has special programs planned for this Thursday, Feb. 27, when it hosts celebrated Gee’s Bend Quilters Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway. The Gee’s Bend Quilters are multiple generations of women from Gee’s Bend, a small, remote, African-American community in Wilcox County, Alabama. The women of Gee’s Bend have created hundreds of masterpiece quilts since the early 20th century.

Cullman County Master Gardner and artist Ben South, in his profile of Wilcox County for The Tribune’s “67-County Alabama Garden Party” Bicentennial series, gushed, “These quilts of bold geometry using repurposed fabrics are like modern, color-block, fine art paintings and are treasured collectibles.”

The programs at the Agriplex will be two hours each. The morning session will be for the Agriplex’s Heritage Homeschool program and geared toward children from 9-11 a.m. The evening session for adults will take place from 6-8 p.m. The Heritage Homeschool program will introduce the quilts and history, while the evening program will be more in-depth, covering the Gee’s Bend Quilters’ heritage and quilts.

Both events were made possible by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF). Agriplex Director Rachel Dawsey gave credit for that to an Agriplex educator.

“One of our educators, Nicole Taylor, actually found the grant and I wrote it to submit to the AHF,” she said.

Along with the quilters, the Agriplex will welcome historian Mary Allison Haynie, former executive director of the Alabama Folklife Association.

“The Gee’s Bend quilters are recognized nationally not only for their unique quilting style but also as one of the most diverse visual and cultural contributors to the history of art in the United States,” Taylor said. “The grant has specifically made it possible to provide lodging and cover travel expenses for the ladies, as well as covering the Gee’s Bend fees for the program. In addition to the ladies from Gee’s Bend, we will be hosting Mary Allison Haynie, a historian who will be speaking on the history and heritage of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

“This program won’t be so much about the process of quilting,” she continued. “This will be an opportunity for the attendees to learn about the amazing women of the Gee’s Bend community and how their unique style of quilting became a part of Alabama history that has been celebrated nationwide.  We are so excited to be able to offer this experience to the families of north Alabama.”

There will be quilts for viewing and Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway will share Gee’s Bend history through song and storytelling.

The cost to register a child for the Homeschool Heritage program is $8 or $16 per family. To register, visit agriplex.org. The adult program in the evening is free, but Dawsey stressed that space is limited. Reserve a spot by registering at https://bit.ly/2wxbDZa. You can also register by phone at 256-297-1044.

From www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers:

“The women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, black community in Alabama—have created hundreds of quilt masterpieces dating from the early twentieth century to the present. Resembling an inland island, Gee’s Bend is surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. The seven hundred or so inhabitants of this small, rural community are mostly descendants of slaves, and for generations they worked the fields belonging to the local Pettway plantation. Quiltmakers there have produced countless patchwork masterpieces beginning as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, with the oldest existing examples dating from the 1920s. Enlivened by a visual imagination that extends the expressive boundaries of the quilt genre, these astounding creations constitute a crucial chapter in the history of African American art.

“Gee’s Bend quilts carry forward an old and proud tradition of textiles made for home and family. They represent only a part of the rich body of African American quilts. But they are in a league by themselves. Few other places can boast the extent of Gee’s Bend’s artistic achievement, the result of both geographical isolation and an unusual degree of cultural continuity. In few places elsewhere have works been found by three and sometimes four generations of women in the same family, or works that bear witness to visual conversations among community quilting groups and lineages. Gee’s Bend’s art also stands out for its flair—quilts composed boldly and improvisationally, in geometries that transform recycled work clothes and dresses, feed sacks, and fabric remnants.”

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