Ruth Kennedy, Gee’s Bend’s Oldest Quilter

Ruth Kennedy, the oldest quilter in Gee's Bend
Ruth Kennedy

Ruth Kennedy came into the Gee’s Bend Collective the day I was leaving.  She often stops by when she knows there are people coming to visit, and that morning there was a bus bringing 15 quilters from Marion County Alabama.

Ruth just turned eighty-seven and is still quilting.  She’s the oldest quilter in Gee’s Bend.   She’s a soft spoken woman whose sweetness you can see in her smile.  She took my hand and held it in both of hers when she introduced herself to me.  Then she told me that when she was a little girl they used to hang the quilt frame from the ceiling in their house.  It was on a pulley so they could lower it when the 5 or 6 neighborhood women would come over to quilt.  She got a big smile on her face remembering how much fun it was to play under the quilt frame as a kid.

Until the 1930’s most of the families lived in plank houses in Gee’s Bend with a fireplace to heat and help light the room. They would hang quilts on the walls to keep the wind from coming through the cracks in the walls.  They would pile 3 or 4 quilts on the bed to keep warm at night.

Now when the women of Gee’s Bend make quilts, they do it to sell them at the Collective.  But  the quilts continue to be about survival, community, art and beauty.

Breakfast at Mary Ann’s

breakfastWhen Mary Ann asked me what I eat for breakfast, I told her I’d eat whatever she made.  “Good” she said, “I like three kinds of meat for breakfast”.  Eggs, grits with cheese, two types of sausage, bacon and toast (the toast didn’t fit on the plate, messed with the design).  It was a delicious as it is beautiful.

Diamond in Disguise at Gee’s Bend

Mary Ann taking a photo of the quilt scraps
Mary Ann taking a photo of the quilt scraps

“I’ve never done this before”  Mary Ann said as she dumped a plastic bag of fabric scraps on her kitchen table and took a picture of them.  The photo of the  fabric already looked like a chaotic version of one of her quilts.  The shape of the scraps were similar to the shapes in her latest quilts.

Mary Ann discovered her creative time.  Jon always says we each have our creative time.  It’s when we do our best work.  It’s a sacred time, not to be compromised.  It’s now clear that Mary Ann’s creative time starts around 8pm.  After a nap, after cooking dinner and feeding the cats, after eating dinner and washing the dishes, after talking on the phone or to company…..then it’s Mary Ann’s fruitful time to work.

After seeing Mary Ann’s tiny quilt square I wanted one to bring home.  I knew that if I didn’t take one home with me I’d never get one.  Mary Ann has a green suitcase full of small quilt squares that are promised to people, some from over a year ago.  They are all unfinished and have a piece of loose leaf paper folded around them with someone’s name and address, sometimes a description of what to make the square into, or a price of how much the person wants to spend.

I didn’t  want to become a name and address in that suitcase.  So when Mary Ann didn’t get to work yesterday afternoon at the Gee’s Bend Collective, I saw my chances of getting one of her tiny quilt squares slipping away.  But by 7pm, when  she didn’t get the phone call that would let her know  there was Choir practice,  I saw her eyeing the plastic bag she filled that afternoon with my  fabric scraps.  I tried not to look too excited, I knew once she got started she wouldn’t be able to stop until it was done.  She emptied the bag onto the kitchen table.  It was a quilt, a  collage, an abstract painting.  She picked up the strip of  fabric with buttons on it from Jon’s shirt, moving it around on the table.  And when she looked at the clock and said we had to go visit her sister Julie, I wasn’t worried.  I knew Mary Ann would be coming back home and sewing, all those scraps rearranging themselves in her head as we drove to her sisters.

Then for the second night in a row, I watched her as she created.  One of the wonderful things about Mary Ann is her ability to change her mind.  If she sews it together and it doesn’t look right, she patiently gets her seam ripper and pulls it apart.  She’ll work sewing certain pieces together, getting them just right then cut the whole piece in half or thirds.  She’s an animated sewer, taking to herself and the fabric, commenting and congratulating herself when something looks really good. Singing along with the Gospel music on the radio, and holding out her arms, in a Ta-Da! moment,  as if presenting her creation to the whole world when she does something different that she’s really happy with.

And when she finished the piece she was happy and so was I.  She turned it round and round finding which side was up.  Then took a picture of it.  That’s when she saw the diamond shape it made. (she’s always seeing letters and numbers and objects in her abstract quilt designs.  One red and white quilt has a design that looks like R2D2, the robot from Star Wars.  She called that quilt Robot on the White House)  Diamond in disguise she said.  And that’s what it’s called.  Then she signed it and stamped it with the Gee’s Bend Stamp.

I left the rest of the fabric I brought with me for Mary Ann to use.  Pieces of Jon’s shirt and the old faded drapes.  She said she’s going to do a series  of tiny quilt squares using the fabric.  Maybe she’ll sell them at the Gee’s Bend Collective, maybe she’ll have an exhibit somewhere of tiny quilt squares.  I’m just  glad I got one for myself.  I knew that every time I look at it I’ll think of being in Mary Ann’s Kitchen, during her creative time, seeing a tiny quilt square being born.

"Diamond in Disguise"
“Diamond in Disguise”
Mary Ann signing "Diamond in Disguise"
Mary Ann signing “Diamond in Disguise”
The size, title and Gee's Bend Stamp
The size, title and Gee’s Bend Stamp

Working at the Gee’s Bend Collective

Nancy and Mary Ann at the Gee's Bend Collective
Nancy Pettway and Mary Ann Pettway at the Gee’s Bend Collective with one of Mary Ann’s quilts that she’s working on.

We spent the day at the Gee’s Bend Collective, where Mary Ann quilts and  sells Gee’s Bend Quilts and wall hangings and potholders.  She gives workshops and lessons there too as well as  taking care of the finances and inventory and anything else that needs to be done.  It seems she’s always in demand for interviews or giving demonstrations and selling quilts to the bus loads of people who come by.

Mary Ann got me set up to work on my quilt then took care of business and tried to get another tiny quilt square started. But by the time she got to sew the bobbin in her sewing machine kept binding up and soon it was time to go home.

Nancy Pettway stopped by the Collective and visited  for a while.   There’s a bus coming from Birmingham this weekend so she dropped off some of her quilt squares to sell.  I met Nancy yesterday at the African Dance and she has such a warm and easy manner I immediately felt comfortable with her.   “Let’s have a hug” she said when she was leaving, and wished me a good trip home tomorrow.

My quilt square so far.
My quilt square so far.



Pleasant Grove Baptist Church

Bapist grove church and Mary Ann

We stopped by Mary Ann’s church so she could turn on the air conditioner for Choir practice tonight.  Although additions have been built onto it, you can still see some of the original structure on the inside of the church.  This is the Pleasant Grove  Baptist Church where Martin Luther King spoke in 1965.  Mary Ann was only a kid when that happened, but now she cleans the church and sings in the Choir.

Mary Ann Pettyway’s Tiny Quilt Square

Mary Ann Pettway's tiny quilt square
Mary Ann Pettway’s tiny quilt square it’s 3 1/2″ x 4 “

Last night as Mary Ann was giving me a  quilting lesson something kinda magical happened.  As I was tossing aside the tiny scraps that I cut off the edges of my strips of fabric, Mary Ann was putting them  in a pile.  I was done for the night, admiring my square when Mary Ann sat down at the sewing machine in her kitchen and sewed together a half inch piece of black fabric to a half inch piece of blue fabric (the two squares in the bottom left corner).

Not only would I have thrown those scraps of fabric in the garbage without a second thought, but I never would have considered sewing them together.  Then she searched for a piece of drapery fabric just the right size to go across the top of the blue and black piece.

There was no stopping her after that.  One piece led to another and eventually she found some small scarps of her signature red to add to it all.  One of them was so small it ended up being the smallest triangle I’ve ever seen. (It’s at the top of the piece just left of center).

“Oh Wow”, we kept saying as she sewed two more tiny  scraps of fabric together, “Wow,Wow, this is gorgeous”.  “Patience” she repeated “patience”.  At one point Mary Ann started to quietly sing to herself.  It was a creative frenzy.  Mary Ann got an 8×10 frame she had hanging around and put the piece in it to see how it would look.  I thought it was perfect, but she knew there was more to do.  She added on and added on until it was done.  Then she found just the right white fabric to frame it.

We were in awe looking at it.  Mary Ann had never made anything so small.    Like a tiny shiny gem, it shouted to be looked at.  It was huge.

By 11pm we were both exhausted.   Both of us had made something completely new.  Mary Ann taught me a new way to make a quilt and my scraps inspired her to create  something new. We encouraged each other, the creativity flowing between us, around us right there at her kitchen table.

Mary Ann is keeping this first tiny quilt square for herself, but it she makes another  before I leave Gee’s Bend tomorrow I’m going to scoop it up.  Maybe she’ll be inspired to work again this evening, I sure hope so.

The back of Mary Ann's tiny quilt square. A neat back, is the sign of a professional.
The back of Mary Ann’s tiny quilt square. A neat back,the sign of a professional.

Learning to be Spontaneous

my square

Last night Mary Ann and I stayed up late working.  This is my learning square. Making it, the most important thing I learned was to be spontaneous.   Not planning it all out, but putting it together one piece at a time.  That’s what I’ll be working on today.

While I was working on this, Mary Ann started sewing my scarps together, Scarps I would have thrown in the garbage.  She made a gorgeous tiny square.  I’ll post photos of it later.

Tonight I’ll got with Mary Ann to Choir practice.  Lucky me.

Mary Ann's Kitchen table this morning, where we worked last night. We were too tired to clean it up.
Mary Ann’s Kitchen table this morning, where we worked last night. We were too tired to clean it up.

Wow Wow Gee’s Bend

The Gee's Bend Ferry to Camden
The Gee’s Bend Ferry to Camden

Gee’s Bend is more than a tight-knit community, it’s more like one big extended family.  Mary Ann seems to know  everyone we meet or knows someone who knows them.  Many of the roads are named after family members and family still lives on those roads.  Conversation is easy and rolling, news passes from one person to another, with a sing-song lightness.  Who fell and who helped them up, who was where when, who’s moving in with who.

We never made it to the Collective to work today, instead I got a taste of what it’s like to live in Gee’s Bend.  We just made it on the 8:30AM ferry to Camden, stopping on the way to pick up Mary Ann’s niece Glinda.  Breakfast was eggs, grits and a biscuit from a grill at a gas station, the best breakfast place in town according to Mary Ann and the long line of people ahead of us.   Cell service is spotty but I got a strong signal outside the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center, where Mary Ann dropped me off while she ran errands.  So I got to talk to Jon, catch up on what’s going on at home  and hear his wonderful voice.  The Art Center was filled with everything from crafts to painting  and sculpture by fine artists, trained and untrained.  There was lots I would have liked to take home with me, but settled on a found object mobile, small enough to fit in my suit case.

A couple of hours later, back on the ferry to Gee’s Bend, Mary Ann pointed out the land that used to belong to her Uncle, which is now underwater.  It was flooded when the government opened the dam, Mary Ann didn’t know why, just that her Uncle lost his land.  Before that, when she was a kid,  Mary Ann and the rest of her family would  pick cotton on her Uncles land.  The money they made was used to buy them their clothes for the year.  With a flour sack around her neck she’d pick 100-150lbs a day.  They’d work from early in the morning to late at night, stopping for a 30 minute break at lunch time.  Picking cucumbers was the worst, she said, they were down on the ground, hard to get at, and you’d have to watch for snakes.

We stopped for lunch at Abrams Place, a small grocery and grill.  We had hamburgers and potato sticks and once again everyone who came into the store stopped to chat with Mary Ann and Glinda.  It was here I got a good dose of Southern Hospitality.  Everyone was warm and friendly.

Mary Ann and her niece Glinda having lunch.
Mary Ann and her niece Glinda waiting for lunch.

Every time we started for the Collective Mary Ann thought of something else I should see or someone else  I should meet. At the Gee’s Bend Welcome Center, I watched some women quilting.   When we left there  Mary Ann got a phone call from one of her many friends.  There were  African drummers and dancers performing at the ABC Elementary School.  Only friendly hellos as we walked into the school. We didn’t have to sign in or have tickets or even let anyone know we were coming. And probably the only person that Mary Ann doesn’t know, directed us to the Gym when he over heard us saying we were there to see the drummers.   First some of the  school girls did a dance then the  African drummers and dancer came on.  Everyone was clapping, the teachers got up and danced (some reluctantly, but they did it) then the kids danced.  Wow Wow means Yes Yes the dancer said.  And when prompted, all those little kids yelled Wow! Wow! so loud it hurt my ears.

The African Drummers and Dancers at the ABC Elementary School.
The African Drummers and Dancers at the ABC Elementary School.

Ice cream from Abrams Place  on the way back home after a few more visits with Mary Ann’s aunts, all quilters.  I thought I should ask them questions or take their pictures, but I didn’t.  I just sat listening to the easy conversation about people I didn’t know.  Letting the experience wash over me like a poem. Getting a feel for what it’s like to live in Gee’s Bend.

I Slept Under A Gee’s Bend Quilt Last Night


It didn’t really hit me until I got under the covers.  I was sleeping under a Gee’s Bend quilt.  I had never even seen a Gee’s Bend quilt in person until coming to Alabama yesterday and now I was covering myself with one.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, couldn’t stop touching it.   I read about and have been looking at quilts made by Mary Ann’s Aunt Queenie, who made this quilt, in my Gee’s Bend Book for years.   Sleeping under a Gee’s Bend quilt is like sleeping under one of Matisse’s  painting.

I’m In Alabama

Mary Ann Pettway in front of the Gee's Bend Collective
Mary Ann Pettway in front of the Gee’s Bend Collective

I walked out of the Montgomery Airport removing layers of clothing.  Once in the rental car I even took off my socks.  I haven’t been so warm in almost a year.  I opened the car windows and drove down Highway 80 towards Gee’s Bend.  So many good things had happened since I landed in Alabama.  I got a text from Jon that he had a new book contract, then Mary Ann called me to make sure I was on my way, and when I called Jon back he told me that Liam the lamb had a broken rib.  I know the last may not sound like good news, but I was afraid it was worse for Liam, a broken rib could heal.  I found myself singing I’m in Alabama, as I drove along.  I couldn’t help myself, along with all the good news, everything around me was green and there were wildflowers blooming on the side of the road, and I was on my way to Gee’s Bend.

A hour and a half later, I turned left at the stop sign at the end of the road and saw the Gee’s Bend Collective on the right, just as Mary Ann said it would be.  I noticed the hand written sign asking people not to take any photo’s inside the building.   Mary Ann was sitting at long table writing out labels and we hugged like old friends.  I got a quick look around then followed Mary Ann back to her house, so I could rest after my trip and she could finish up her work.  We drove down an orange dirt road and pulled up in front of a one story brick house.  Four or five kittens snuggled together in a crate on the front porch.  Mary Ann showed me my room, on the bed was a quilt made by her Aunt Queenie Pettway.  I immediately felt at home.

Mary Ann got back around 3 o’clock and from then until 7pm or so we sat in her living room talking. (In between phone calls, Mary Ann is very popular)  We watched a video of the PBS special of her and some of the other quilters.   In it Mary Ann sang her favorite song “I Don’t Want Nobody Praising Over Me When I’m Gone”.  Then Mary Ann cooked us a delicious dinner of chicken, dressing,(my first time having dressing)  sweet potatoes and biscuits.

Tomorrow we’ll take the ferry to Camden then do some work at the  Gee’s Bend Collective.

Quilt by Queenie Pettway
Quilt by Queenie Pettway
Full Moon Fiber Art