In anticipation of our upcoming event at Grocery on Home, I’ve been going through The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, by William Arnett, Alvia Wardlaw, Jane Livingston, and John Beardsley again this week. It’s only serving to make me really excited. The book is rich with history and filled with gorgeous photographs of hand-stitched quilts and the stories of the women who made them. The mini-autobiographies of each quilt maker provide snapshots of life in Gee’s Bend. Each entry is written in the seamstress’s own words, like this opening paragraph in Helen McCloud’s story:
“I was born down in Clifton, out from Annemanie. My mother was Della Mae Bridges. We worked in the fields, raised cotton and stuff. Kind of rough. My daddy was a big farmer-cotton, corn, rice, peanuts, squashes, cucumbers, beans, oats. And, Lord, we had to get out there and pick them. Jesus, I hated that, but if you didn’t, you get tore up. Watermelons, too. Two hundred pounds of cotton wasn’t nothing for me to pick. My daddy was so mean to us.”
Having recently spent some time in a cotton field, we have a special appreciation for the amount of effort that picking two hundred pounds must have required. Helen isn’t alone in her tales of hardship. Most of the quilt makers talk of times more difficult than those we experience today: plowing fields, canning vegetables, and sewing scraps by candlelight. It is a testament to each woman’s creative spirit that they could create such beautiful things when life seemed so trying. The women of Gee’s Bend possess an incredible strength evident in their words and art.
The Alabama River flows in a deep U shape cradling Gee’s Bend; this water barrier made travel and modernization difficult, but is also thought to have helped strengthen the community and foster a more homogeneous culture. William and Paul Arnett describe the geography of the bend in the book, saying:
“On the map, the Alabama River is all grace and audacity, nearly making an island of the piece of Wilcox County long known as Gee’s Bend. The facts on the ground are more prosaic. The water, which has given and taken away so much, has regulated human life in its domain, but not in the usual ways a river conditions lives. This river has acted more like an ocean, most of the time separating Gee’s Bend from the rest of the world.”
The isolation of Gee’s Bend makes the creative growth of its famous quilters amazingly unique. Looking forward to joining Matt Arnett and the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers and singers at Grocery on Home in Atlanta, Georgia, on Sunday, November 4th, for a night of conversation, reading, and music.