In my previous life in Ohio, I was a longtime member of the Textile Art Alliance, an affiliate group of the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Still am, actually.) Comprised mostly of textile artists, the group does some fundraising and community outreach programs, and also brings in textile artists and specialists (Kaffe Fassett, Jane Sassaman, Jane Dunnewold, to name a recent few) for lectures and workshops. I had just finished up 6 very active years on the TAA board, several as program chair, when we found out we'd be moving last summer. One afternoon, busy getting the house ready to sell, I received a phone call from the museum inviting me to a special event as a thank you for my TAA work. "Dress casual, see you Saturday!"
So on a sunny, breezy day late last June, several TAA friends and I had a memorable lunch and cruise on Lake Erie with the quilters of Gee's Bend. Expecting a typical museum function crowded with patrons and museum people, we were surprised to find the invitees were pretty much just 'us'.
Front, seated: Mary Bennett, Annie May Young, Arlonzia Pettway, Nettie Young
Second row, standing: Mary Lee Bendolph, Essie Pettway, China Pettway (far right)
Third row: Bill Arnett, Candace Gee (far left)
We assembled at the dock, the quilters, their 'handlers', several museum staffers and the TAA group each congregating in small conversation groups. When we boarded and entered the dining area, the seven Gee's Bend quilters sat at one end of a table and my friend and I were surprised to see everyone else heading in their small groups to separate tables. We paused, exchanged a look and promptly sat down with the quilters. I could write a small book about the next 3 hours.
We sat across from Mary Lee Bendolph and Annie May Young, the quilter who made the famous blue/red cover quilt for the popular book, The Quilts of Gee's Bend. After a little polite small talk, everyone warmed up and conversations were crisscrossing the table. Arlonzia Pettway told us of her grandmother, who arrived here on the last slave ship. A young woman sitting to my left turned out to be Candace Gee, a decendant of the original slaveowner. She told me of her ignorance of her family's history and how she was alerted to it after a friend called to tell her of the L.A. Times' Pulitzer Prize winning series (1999) on Mary Lee and Gee's Bend. In Cleveland to see the show for the first time, Candace's story of her subsequent trip to Gee's Bend could be a book itself.
As we headed to an upper deck for the cruise, my friend and I were incredulous over our lunch experience. Little did we expect that when we got upstairs, Mary Lee would be waving us over, having saved us seats. She wanted to hear all about us, our families, our quilting. She regaled us with story after story of her life...some hysterically funny, some heartbreaking, some poignant. She told us of accompanying Martin Luther King Jr. to drink from a 'whites only' water fountain in Selma, Alabama. Living history, sitting and laughing with us on that beautiful, sunny afternoon.
Midway through the cruise, Mary Lee's daughter, Essie Pettway, also a quilter, joined us. More our contemporary in age, she had her mother's easy conversational way and we all chatted until the boat finally moored. They invited us to Gee's Bend in August for the opening of their new church and it still kills me that with everything I had on my plate that month, I just couldn't go. It was hard to end such a wonderful day.
On Sunday, the museum hosted a roundtable discussion featuring the Gee's Bend ladies recounting the stories of their hard lives, their 'discovery' (a funny, funny story as told by Annie May Young) and the phenomena of their quilts 'as art'. It ended with the quilters singing their gospel music. Being such a busy time, I hadn't planned to attend. But after the cruise, I knew I couldn't miss it and even persuaded my favorite knitblogger to join me. She was greeted and hugged like a long lost child.
I have never been among a group of people who were so genuinely happy and spiritual. They have lived the hardest lives and yet will take every opportunity to express how grateful they are for their many blessings. The whole weekend was a gift. If you are a fan of the Gee's Bend quilts, hunt down the books and actually read the stories of these remarkable women. You'll be inspired and find the quilts even more compelling once you know their history.
The Gee's Bend Quilts exhibit opens June 1 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and runs through August 21. If you are in New England this summer, any effort to see this stunning show would be well worth it. Some of the Gee's Bend quilters will be at the MFA for special opening week programs the first week of June.