Three of the women from Gee’s Bend Alabama sat at a quilt frame, propped up on folding chairs, in the lobby of the Catherine Dianich Gallery, quilting. Their finished quilts hung inside the gallery, filling the walls with color, shapes and unique and personal patterns. I watched Delia Pettway Thibodeaux’s fingers push the needle through the three layers of fabric and batting then pull the thread up. ” Do you want to try?” she asked me. My head started nodding quickly up and down” Yes” I said, wanting nothing more.
I’ll admit I was a bit star struck. Well, maybe very star struck. I’ve been to Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Spent three days living and working with Quilter, Mary Ann Pettway, slept under her Aunt Queenie’s quilt. But I was still giddy being in the presence of these women. And I know they’re just people like the rest of us, but the Quilts of Gee’s Bend and the women who made them, many who are no longer alive, helped shape my creative life. And my creative life is who I am.
I pushed the needle through the fabric and talked to Delia about her work. I asked her to say hello to Mary Ann for me and wrote down my name on a scrap of paper so she wouldn’t forget it. When I finished my line of stitching I got up to let someone else try, but I really just wanted to stay there, quilting and talking.
Then I introduced myself to China Pettway, who was standing on the other side of the quilt. I had heard her singing gospel songs in so many videos on YouTube that I watched before going to Gee’s Bend. (Mary Ann Pettway is sitting next to China in the video) She has a fierce love of her God which you can hear in her singing and isn’t afraid to talk about. I told China Pettway how I had heard her sing and that it was the Gee’s Bend Quilts that inspired me to start doing my work again after abandoning it for so long. I told her I made quilts, then started to explain that I didn’t actually quilt them, but she cut me off before I could babble on. She told me that it didn’t matter how I made my quilts as long as I made them the way I wanted to. That no one could tell me how to make them, that what ever I did was the right way for me to do it.
I know this, it’s one of the things that got me making my quilts to begin with, but those words coming straight from China Pettway to me was like scripture. And her words vibrated through my body finding their place inside of me.
After that we watched a film on Gee’s Bend and China sang a song for us. Her rough voice was beautiful, filled with wisdom and emotion. It was thrilling for me to hear her sing live and once again that night, I felt tears welling up in my eyes.
I understand why I was so emotional, why seeing the quilts and the women who made them are so important to me. Because for me, the intuitive process that the Gee’s Bend Quilters use to make their quilts goes beyond the quilts. It’s how I have come to live my life.
With each quilt I trusted myself to make and put out into the world, I was strengthening my sense of self. I was actually discovering who I really am. I was freeing my mind and my body from the beliefs I had grown up with and lived with for 40 years. I was leaning who I was and what I wanted and finding the strength, partly though doing my work, to make my life what I wanted it to be. Not what I thought it should be or was taught it should be. And when I was finally able to make those decisions about my life for myself I began to see that what I thought and who I was is important and has value. That I had something to say, something to contribute to the world just by being who I am. And that it’s the same for everyone.
The Gee’s Bend way of quilting became the philosophy of my life. Making my quilts brought me to myself. So it’s no wonder that these women and their art mean so much to me. Even though we grew up in extremely different circumstances and have lived very different lives, we come together in our art. A person can’t make these kinds of quilts without a sense of self worth, they wouldn’t know how to being, couldn’t continue working on it, wouldn’t know when it’s done.
These life truths can come from many different places, but for me, they began when I saw my first photo of a Gee’s Bend Quilt. They are a symbol for me, a threshold to my awakening.