The Art and Legacy of A Gee's Bend Quilt Collection

This September, The Arts Company presents The Art and Legacy of a Gee’s Bend Quilt Collection, a new series of handmade museum-quality rugs based on the original quilts created by a group of African-American women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Rug designer Barbara Barran, founder of Classic Rug Collection, New York, has translated the multi-generational quilters’ highly-prized collection of contemporary art into a stunning rug collection. The rugs are produced under exclusive license with the individual quilters. All of the quilt designs are copyrighted by the individual Gee’s Bend quilters, and each quilter receives a royalty for every one of her rugs that is sold. 

The exhibit opens during First Saturday Art Crawl Downtown on September 2, from 6PM to 9PM, and will continue through September 28, during regular gallery hours, 11am-5pm, Tuesday-Saturday. 



Bringing their artistic traditions with them from Africa, the women made quilts for the most utilitarian purposes: to soften the feel of corncob mattresses, to stuff into the walls of their drafty cabins, and for basic warmth. When folk art collector William Arnett noticed the quilts on clothes lines as he scoured the South for artwork, he immediately purchased numerous quilts and vowed to have them displayed in a museum for fine art, rather than in a folk art museum.

The show that Arnett mounted at the Whitney Museum in 2002 broke all attendance records. The New York Times Arts Writer Michael Kimmelman referred to the quilts as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee . . . arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South in the form of women, descendants of slaves when Gee's Bend was a plantation.” 


Barbara Barran signed a licensing agreement with the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective in 2002, and three years later, The Arts Company hosted a Nashville lunch reception for 75 of the quilters.  According to Barran, “The reception was followed by a smashingly successful exhibit of Gee’s Bend Quit Collection rugs at the highly respected Nashville gallery.”

In 2010, Arnett’s collection formed the basis of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a group dedicated to the preservation and popularization of African-American art. To celebrate the donation of Gee’s Bend Quilts by this group to the Metropolitan Museum, the de Young Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the High Museum, Barran has launched a new collection of Gee’s Bend Quilt rugs. The September exhibit at The Arts Company will show this group of flat woven, hand-tufted, and hand-knotted rugs with quilt patterns by Mary Lee Bendolph and Loretta Pettway, two women who were honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2015 for their artistic contributions to America. 

One of the rugs, “Housetop” by Qunnie Pettway, is a repeat design from the first collection;“Vegetation,” another hand-knotted piece, is by Loretta Bennett, Qunnie’s daughter. Several of the hand-tufted rugs are from designs by Louisiana Bendolph, one of the younger generation of quilters. Barran used Louisiana’s “Three Squares” pattern for the first-ever GBQC runner. Annie Bendolph’s 1930 quilt, “Wild Goose Chase,” hand-tufted in cut and looped New Zealand wool, is the signature piece for the new rug collection. Contemporary quilter Nancy Pittway is represented by two rugs, including her “Housetop,” in a hand-loomed cotton flat weave.