After years of wondering about the area known as Gee's Bend and the quilting women who live there, I finally got to visit.
Don and I knew we would be traveling through Alabama, so we planned a stop. Of course Gee's Bend is not on the way to anywhere.
This tiny community is surrounded on 3 sides by the winding Alabama River, far from any major highway.
There are no motels or inns, but through the help of the internet, I reached resident Mary Ann Pettway and she said we could stay with her... if we didn't mind her housekeeping. Mary Ann shared more than her home. She shared her town and some delicious meals and her family.
Sharing the Quilt and Gifts
But I had dragged it this far. I wanted to explain about my groups in Texas that gather around the quilt to share stories and ideas and songs. I wanted the Gee's Bend women to know how my groups admire what they do, because we only gather weekly and we don't quilt at all.
Sharing the Quilt and Gifts
The Gee's Bend Quilter's hardly had a chance to examine my not so impressive quilt because I covered it fairly quickly with all the handmade gifts from Texas. They were most excited about the "quilt cards" made by the kids at the Fort Bend Shelter. They each picked a card and seemed surprised when I assured them the cards were theirs to keep.
Men Quilt Too
I'm eager to share this photo of Tyree with the Texas kids. He studied the cards carefully before making his choice.
I'll be happy to report to the kids that men do quilt. Tyree was raised in Gee's Bend among quilting women, but had no interest in the craft when he was young. It wasn't until he went to college and began incorporating quilting techniques as an artist that he made use of the design and stitching skills that had surrounded him growing up. He's now back living in Gee's Bend working on an amazing piece which involves leather, denim... and some quilting that requires a bit of muscle!
Tyree wasn't the only man around on Wednesday. I didn't see Mr. McCloud actually use a needle and thread, but he provided the biggest dose of enthusiasm and laughter in the room. Those are pretty good things to have surrounding a quilt!
The Paper Quilt
These photos show the front and back of a paper quilt made as a gift by the Texas Silverado Quilt Group. Most of the seniors at Silverado have Alzheimer's but they had no trouble brainstorming words that have to do with quilts and quilting.
They debated as a group how to piece their "patches" of paper together. (A bit like a quilting bee!) I wish I had a video of the reaction of the Gee's Bend group as they read the words on the paper quilt. They seemed touched by some of the words like priceless and friendship. They chuckled at the word gossip...as if they weren't about to tell me what kind of gossip happened around their quilts!
A Quilt Square
It was almost lunch time at the center, so I quickly pulled out a few fabric squares and markers. Paige, the youngest of all decorated a square and seemed excited to know it would join other squares in making my new quilt. Eventually I'll have a new quilt connecting all the thoughts and drawings of so many who have gathered around my old quilt. As I packed my things away, Tyree gathered the group for a blessing. Then the quilters began to sway and hum and the small room filled with voices singing and giving thanks before their hot lunch was served.
There are so many things I want to know about this isolated community. Gee's Bend has an amazing history that began when the relatives of current residents were slaves on Joseph Gee's plantation in 1861. In the 1930's photojournalist, Arthur Rothstein brought a spotlight to this hidden Alabama community. In the 1960's Gee's Bend became involved in the civil rights movement when Martin Luther King spoke at the Baptist church to encourage voter registration.
But the questions that my Texas group had for the Alabama quilters were about the women who quilt now. They wanted to know who taught them and what they thought about when they quilted and what other things they do when they sit around quilting. They wrote out their questions on small cards and I presented them to Mary Ann. You could see Mary Ann pondering over the first question. Obviously these questions don't have one word answers, so Mary Ann suggested they keep them a while and write us back with the answers. I love that. Old fashioned quilting...old fashioned letter writing!
What I Learned
I've used my quilt as a tool to gather people together in lots of places, but this traveling quilt adventure was different than all the others. I shared my quilt just enough to explain about my Texas groups and to hand over their gifts. But this quilt adventure wasn't about my quilt...it was about theirs!
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.