Discovering Gee’s Bend: A Place Within a Play

Gee’s Bend, Alabama is located in Wilcox County and is surrounded on three sides by a dramatic U-turn in the Alabama River. The approximately 700 residents are almost all descendants of the slaves of the original Gee’s Bend plantation.

Boykin, also known as Gee’s Bend, is an African American majority community and census-designated place in a large bend of the Alabama River in Wilcox County, Alabama.

This geographic isolation and unusual stability of community created a unique enclave for the women’s art community: quilting. The history of Gee’s Bend is the story of a tiny place altered by large social changes occurring over the years.

Before the Civil War, Gee’s Bend was primarily a working cotton plantation, first controlled by slave owner Joseph Gee and then his nephews, who sold it to Mark Pettway. After the Civil War, the emancipated slaves took the last name of Pettway, and worked the same land as tenant farmers. In the 1930s the acreage was sold to the federal government, which in turn developed a program to enable them to purchase the land that they already cultivated.

Pettway plantation, April 1937. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

The type of quilt making found in Gee’s Bend is of the African-American style. This style is considered unique among others found elsewhere in the United States. The most obvious reason for this is the overt African influence. The use of symbols, asymmetry, bright colors, and vertical piecing are techniques that hark back to African textile creations of years ago. Many of the symbols found in these quilts have also been traced back to religious symbols native to a multitude of African tribes. So although these quilts signify their personal pasts and hopes for a future, these women still respect the culture from which they originated.

Mary Lee Bendolph, one of the quilters who inspired the play Gee’s Bend. Photo credit internationalfolkart.org.

These quilts were not originally created as pieces of art—whether for wall hangings or theatrical inspiration. In fact, the quilts were made out of necessity. The very culture that these women were raised in taught them that everything had a use.

So when the nights became cold each winter, the women would scrounge what small scraps of fabric they could find and fashion a blanket to put on the beds of their children and themselves. The inspiration for this approach to construction came from the equally as innovative approach to housing insulation—using layers of paper found in newspapers or magazines.

These wonderful pieces of art were simply thought of as creative methods of keeping a family warm until 1966. It was then that these women realized that the magic and beauty of the quilts came more from what went into them rather than what came out.

Flying Geese variation, ca. 1935 by Annie E. Pettway.

It was a common practice in these small communities of quilt makers to “air out” their quilts every spring. For members of the community, this became a time to study other’s methods or designs so that they may have inspiration the next winter. However, in 1966, another set of eyes caught a glimpse of these soon to be masterpieces.

Gee’s Bend Quilt, April 2012, Gee’s Bend. Photo credit: “The Future of Gee’s Bend,” Deep South Magazine.

Father Francis Walter saw something more than function in these quilts. He saw a passion and a history unique to these people. Walter, a Civil Rights worker, proposed the idea of marketing and selling these quilts to stores in larger cities in the hopes that these women would soon become self-sufficient economically doing what they loved. Working in conjunction with many volunteers, he was able to get the quilts into the Smithsonian Institution. This exposed the work of these women to the world, but also inspired stores such as Sears, Bloomingdales, and Saks Fifth Ave. to sign contracts with them to manufacture and sell their designs.

In 2002, Houston’s noted Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition of quilts created by over 30 residents of Alabama’s small community of Gee’s Bend. The exhibit, praised by The New York Times and others, brought world-wide attention to the otherwise hidden creative endeavors of the quilters of Gee’s Bend.

“The best of these designs, unusually minimalist and spare, are so eye-poppingly gorgeous that it’s hard to know how to begin to account for them. The results, not incidentally, turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” – The New York Times

Art collector William Arnett, working on a history of African-American folk art in 1998, made the discovery when he came across a photograph of Annie Mae Young’s work-clothes quilt draped over a woodpile. He was so impressed by its originality, he set out to find it. Research lead Arnett and his son Matt to Young in Gee’s Bend and then they showed up at her door late one evening.

Young had burned some quilts the week before (smoke from burning cotton drives off mosquitoes), and at first she thought the quilt in the photograph had been among them. But the next day, she found it and offered it to Arnett for free. Arnett, however, insisted on writing her a check for a few thousand dollars for that quilt and several others. Soon the word spread through Gee’s Bend that there was a white man in town paying money for raggedy old quilts.

Work-Clothes Quilt ca. 2002 by Mary Lee Bendolph.

Arnett shared his discovery with Peter Marzio of the Museum of Fine Arts. The attention to the exhibition revived what had been a dying art in Gee’s Bend. In 2006, the Smithsonian magazine reported that some of the quilters, who had given in to age and arthritis, were back quilting again. And many of their children and grandchildren, some of whom had moved away from Gee’s Bend, had taken up quilting themselves.

Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective, Gee’s Bend. Photo credit: “The Future of Gee’s Bend,” Deep South Magazine.

With the help of Arnett and the Tinwood Alliance (a nonprofit organization that he and his four sons formed in 2002), fifty local women founded the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective in 2003 to market their quilts, some of which had sold for more than $20,000.

The play Gee’s Bend was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers Project, where it received a staged reading in 2006 and premiered in January 2007. Even though the story is loosely based on the life of Mary Lee Bendolph, the play focuses on the community of Gee’s Bend as well. Like most artists, the women of Gee’s Bend looked to their surroundings to inspire their designs and were influenced by those around them.

Watch as Director Gilbert McCauley discusses discovering Gee’s Bend and the impact it has in telling this story. Woman on Pettway Plantation, Gees Bend, 1937. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

“The story of Gee’s Bend is tied to Gee’s Bend only; it’s a special place filled with special people who may appear mundane on the surface, but beneath they are as textured as the very quilts they make,” says Rep Dramaturg Adewunmi Oke. “The costumes, the set and the props will reflect not only the people, but also the place of Gee’s Bend both literally and metaphorically.”

Watch as Dramaturg Adewunmi Oke discusses the lessons audiences will take away from this true story. Monica Parks as mother Alice, Nambi E. Kelley as Sadie and Shannon Lamb as sister Nella in Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of Gee’s Bend.

Gee’s Bend opens on The Rep stage January 25 and runs through February 10, 2013, supported and sponsored by The Design Group, Philander Smith College, Arora, Delta Airlines and the Little Rock Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

The Rep’s production of Gee’s Bend is made possible in part by a grant from the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame Foundation, a component fund of the Arkansas Community Fund.

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