Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee, to view “Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial.” I spent forever moving from one quilt to the next – leaning as closely in as I could without being reprimanded. No matter how many times you see those beautiful pieces, they never fail to amaze and inspire. The quilts, while spectacular, were meant for everyday use and were made with whatever materials were available. The personal stories associated with each quilt drove that point home. Each was described by the maker in simple terms and plain language, as if what they produced was no big deal, as though anyone could do it. I was particularly taken by the quilts of Missouri Pettway, both intricate and simple in their constructions. One quilt, made from her husband’s work clothes, demonstrated the love that went into each and every one of these works of art. I felt a lump rise in my throat as I read the description, as told by the quilter’s daughter, Arlonzia:
“It was when Daddy died. I was about seventeen, eighteen. He stayed sick about eight months and passed on. Mama say, ‘I going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love.’ She take his old pants legs and shirttails, take all the clothes he had, just enough to make that quilt, and I helped her tore them up. Bottom of the pants is narrow, top is wide, and she had me to cutting the top part out and shape them up in even strips.”That is nothing short of a perfect description of how quilts were and are made by those in rural communities. The emotional connection, the use of available materials, and the family involvement – all right there in one simple quote. These are Work Stories translated and transformed to what I would call “Living Stories.”
Ms. Pettway’s words led my mind to a song written by the incredibly talented Kevin Gordon, called “Pecolia’s Star,” about a Mississippi quilter named Pecolia Warner. Kevin, who opened a folk art gallery in Nashville, also became interested in quilts after seeing some of the Gee’s Bend pieces. Gordon discovered Ms. Warner in William Ferris’ “Local Color,” a series of portraits of folk artists, in their own words. After hearing “Pecolia’s Star,” I checked a copy of the book out from the library – and also found myself both touched and fascinated with this woman.
Like the Gee’s Bend quilters, Pecolia grew up in a poor region and learned quilting from her mother and other women in the community. Each of these women worked a full day – picking cotton, keeping up farms, cooking and cleaning. At night, they found solace in one another, and in the work of sewing. She said, “I was a little girl, but I’d be following her, because I wanted to learn how to do that. I used to say, ‘If I ever get grown, I’m going to quilt myself.’” She described watching the women at the quilting bees, their hands working the needles up and down. “I used to love to get up under the quilt and watch them. I watched how they put their hands up under there and pushed the needle up – I liked to watch how they kept their needles working…I never will forget it, me just a little old girl laying down on the floor under there.” She made her first quilt at ten, using scraps from her mother’s sewing basket. “So she bought me a needle and a little thimble to use, and she showed me how to sew. By me just watching her, I learned how to do everything, see.”
Pecolia said that she dreamed of quilts and made the patterns up in her head. She was proudest of her star pattern, because it was complicated and took a lot of skill to make the pieces fit together properly. “I love the Star. It’s my favorite pattern because it’s so beautiful. Just about the prettiest quilt you can piece is a Star.” It’s easy to read these stories and romanticize their quilt making – the beauty of the quilts, of the sewing and the stories. And, while these women used sewing bees as a way to socialize, they were still making items that were needed and used by their families. These women rightly took pride in making beautiful things, but the beauty seems almost a by-product of creating a necessary thing.
We will have the opportunity to connect with women from Gee’s Bend – quilters much like Pecolia Warner at Grocery on Home in Atlanta, Georgia. That evening, we will celebrate what we do, how it connects with what those amazing women create, and how “making” connects us to a larger community.
Our mission at Alabama Chanin is to create beautiful items in a sustainable way, but at the core of what we do is also to make products that are USED—hopefully, every day. Artisans like Pecolia Warner and the Gee’s Bend quilters inspire us, their designs embodying the ultimate combination of beauty and practicality. And like the quilters at Gee’s Bend and Pecolia Warner, we find beauty in the everyday, the extraordinary within the ordinary. An act that began out of necessity became a work of art, a skill passed from mother to daughter with love and pride. As Kevin Gordon’s song says, “This is something good from my hands to your hands, child. This here will keep you walking straight ‘cross a crooked world.”
Please join Alabama Chanin on Sunday, November 4th at Grocery on Home in Atlanta. We look forward to a lively evening of storytelling and song with some of the Gee’s Bend quilt makers and singers and, perhaps, a bit of making.
Listen to Kevin Gordon’s “Pecolia’s Star,” here.
Photo of Pecolia Warner’s Star quilt courtesy of The University of Mississippi Museum.