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Famed Gee’s Bend Quilters are now on the runway and online

Transcript

Hari Sreenivasan: It's well known that jazz, blues and other great forms of American music came from the musical traditions of African Americans in the deep South.

But less recognized is the rich tradition of African American visual art from the same region.

NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Megan Thompson reports on work being done to ensure those artists' place in history… and to support a special group of artisans who all hail from one remote town in rural Alabama.

This story is part of our series "Alabama Reckoning," … about work in that state to right the wrongs of the past.

Stella Mae Pettway: So I'm just going to start at a certain angle here. Over, under, over, under.

Megan Thompson: Stella Mae Pettway is finishing this quilt completely by hand, like she usually does. A bright mosaic of fabrics, some she's had around for years.

Stella Mae Pettway: Yeah, a lot of flannel. And then I have a recycled sheet underneath there. This is all of my stuff. This is my good fabric. And this is not so good.

Megan Thompson: Pettway doesn't use patterns. She just dreams up her own designs.

Stella Mae Pettway: Sometimes when you lay down and you sleeping, you have a good idea, this thought just come in your mind and you just get up and you do it.

Megan Thompson: Pettway's home is full of quilts, and she says, each one tells a story.

Stella Mae Pettway: Everytime I look at this quilt, I think about my mother. This was my mother's favorite color.

Megan Thompson: Her mother first taught her to sew when she was around seven years old. Her grandmother was a quilter too. quilting isn't just part of her family. It's part of the entire community of Gee's Bend, Alabama.

Tinnie Pettway: Well, I don't know what I'd do if I wasn't quilting.

Megan Thompson: Down the road, the practice has made it to its fifth generation. Third generation quilter Tinnie Pettway taught her daughter Claudia, and she taught Claudia's daughter, Francesca, who sews at night after classes at the University of Alabama.

Francesca Charley: She would give me two small little blocks because that was all I could really work with at the time. And then she would just tell me to simply put them together with the needle and thread.

Claudia Pettway Charley: My mother, you know she tells me, I'm too slow. I'll start and she's like, no, just give it to me. So now I just pretty much design it and to pass it along to her. Because she's much faster than I am, ok.

Megan Thompson: Gee's Bend - officially called Boykin - is a small enclave of just over 200 people, tucked into a bend in the Alabama River. Surrounded on three sides by water, there's just one road in and a ferry that runs a few times a day. Many residents are descendants of the enslaved people of the old Pettway plantation, and they still share Pettway as a last name.

After emancipation, their ancestors stayed and farmed. But the community remained isolated and impoverished. The women of Gee's Bend worked in the fields, cared for children, cooked, cleaned and sewed quilts to keep their families warm. They used found materials and old clothes and created quilts with a unique and improvisational look.

In the late 90's, an art dealer named Bill Arnett visited Gee's Bend and was captivated by the artistry he saw. Another master quilter, Mary Margaret Pettway, remembers when this stranger showed up in town wanting to buy her mother's quilts.

Mary Margaret Pettway: He bought quite a few quilts. But what he wanted was the old raggedy quilts.

Megan Thompson: To you, they're old and raggedy.

Mary Margaret Pettway: I promise you they were.

Megan Thompson: But to him?

Mary Margaret Pettway: Apparently they were gold.

Megan Thompson: Arnett bought hundreds of quilts and curated an exhibition that became a sensation. The New York Times called them, "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced." They were displayed at museums across the nation, pictured on postage stamps, published in books and honored by the National Endowment for the Arts. The work of Lucy T. Pettway, Mary Margaret's mother, was acquired by famous museums like the Met and the Phillips Collection.

Mary Margaret Pettway: It's hard, it's hard to make a living.

Megan Thompson: But the recognition and accolades never really translated into meaningful economic gains for most in the community, where many women are the sole breadwinners. The median household income here is around $12,000.

Mary Margaret Pettway: In Gee's Bend, you've got a body shop which may or may not employ you. And that's pretty much it.

Megan Thompson: For most of her life, Mary Margaret had to drive long distances to faraway jobs. And, if she wanted to sell a quilt, there wasn't much opportunity, either. She says buyers usually had to travel to the area to find one.

Mary Margaret Pettway: You might get - you might get a call.

Megan Thompson: Then in 2010, Bill Arnett launched the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. At first, its focus was to continue to get the quilts the recognition they deserved.

Maxwell Anderson: Moving their works of art into museums is a first step. Acknowledgment in the art historical canon is a first step.

Megan Thompson: Maxwell Anderson is the president of souls grown deep.

Maxwell Anderson: The next step, the one we're currently engaged in as well, is providing opportunity. Our view is that the legacy of this tradition is extraordinary. And our goal is simply to provide economic benefit to make the community of Gee's Bend flourish.

Megan Thompson: Anderson has recently launched several new projects to do just that.

Patrick Robinson: Right now everyone's working on a henley.

Megan Thompson: Last year, Souls Grown Deep invested $600,000 in the clothing company Paskho, which set up a sewing operation just a few miles from Gee's Bend that now employs around 20 people. Paskho founder and veteran clothing designer Patrick Robinson says, his goal is to manufacture in American communities that need jobs.

Patrick Robinson: You have highly skilled, creative people, or people just really hungry for work, who want to learn those skills. And they're cut off from the economic system that so much of America is used to. The digital world, a digital economy, they're just completely cut off from that.

Megan Thompson: The skilled seamstresses here have flexible schedules and can earn up to $20 an hour, almost triple Alabama's minimum wage.

Mary Margaret Pettway: They pay a living wage. They don't mind employing older women.

Megan Thompson: But more opportunities were needed for the Gee's Bend quilters. Stella Mae Pettway was making ends meet on Social Security and a small pension, and with her job as a substitute teacher. Then the pandemic hit.

Stella Mae Pettway: No more sub work. All that extra income was gone.

Megan Thompson: To pay her bills and take care of her grandson, who lives with her, she resorted to short-term title loans.

Stella Mae Pettway: You get it this month. You got to run and pay it back next month, you lose, depending on what you borrowed, you losin' all the time.

Megan Thompson: Even though her work has hung in art galleries, most recently in London, Stella says on the rare occasion she sold a quilt, she didn't think they were worth much.

Stella Mae Pettway: Well, if I just got $100 or $200 I guess, I figured that was enough.

Megan Thompson: Then Mary Margaret Pettway - now the chair of the Souls Grown Deep Board of Directors - helped launch a partnership with an artisans' guild called Nest, and the online retailer Etsy. Stella now has an etsy store called "Georgie's Way Quilts," named after her mother. This badge lets buyers know her quilts are the real deal. She charges a few hundred for a small quilt, and a few thousand for a large one. In the last year she's earned around $ 17,000, allowing her to fix her kitchen cabinets, buy a new washing machine, pay bills, and even get a computer for her grandson.

Stella Mae Pettway: It felt great. Because, finally, it was my work out there, other people wanted it and they liked it. It made me feel excited, motivated. Makes you feel real good.

Megan Thompson: So it sounds like this experience has also helped you learn and realize the worth of this work.

Stella Mae Pettway: It did. It really did.

Megan Thompson: According to Etsy, the 20 Gee's Bend quilters selling there have earned nearly half a million dollars among them since the launch last year. Some quilters have also started receiving royalty checks, thanks to efforts by Souls Grown Deep to secure copyrights for their artists.

Claudia Pettway Charley: We have a routine. Get up, eat breakfast, start sewing.

Megan Thompson: These days, Claudia Pettway charley and her mother Tinnie Pettway struggle to keep up with the demand. Sewing potholders for stores in Alabama, quilts and wall art for Etsy - where they're nearly sold out - and recently taking time to meet a die-hard fan who bought one of tinnie's quilts and then traveled from Florida to meet her. They now have fans in the fashion world, too. Souls Grown Deep and Nest pay Claudia to work as a community manager, negotiating collaborations between the Gee's Bend quilters and big-name designers. In the last year, they've worked with Greg Lauren, Nicole Richie, and the luxury label Chloé, which recently showed Gee's Bend designs at Paris Fashion Week.

Claudia Pettway Charley: With Gee's Bend being as popular as it is, we're at the forefront of something great.

Tinnie Pettway: I remember back, the women never had money, no matter how hard they worked. Now we got women with money. That's a great thing.

Claudia Pettway Charley: Right. Freedom. Freedom.

Tinnie Pettway: That's exactly right.

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