Gee’s Bend Quilter Mary Lee Bendolph


AFTER MAKING A CAPTIVATING documentary about artist and musician Lonnie Holley, Maris Curran has trained her lens on the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Ala. In 2016, Curran delivered a brief but memorable portrait of Birmingham, Ala.-born Holley. “The Man is the Music” documents his work and shares the outlines of his life story. Most importantly, it captures his spirit and improvisational creativity.

Holley was sufficiently impressed with the short film that he thought Curran might do the same justice for his friends in Gee’s Bend. He introduced her to Mary Lee Bendolph and her daughter Essie Pettway and through them she met other women quilters in the community.

The Los Angeles-based filmmaker made three trips to Gee’s Bend, which is located about an hour south of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Curran visited with the women in their homes and they talked about learning to quilt from their elders, why they remained in Gee’s Bend, registering to vote, and seeing their quilts in museums.

Pairing their narratives with footage of the rural Alabama community, Curran assembled “While I Yet Live.” The documentary is featured in the New York Times Op-Docs series (watch below). Despite being less than 15 minutes long, it manages to encapsulate the multi-faceted stories of the quilters and their close-knit enclave.

“If one not related to the other the other one’s related to the other one and we all know one another. We are kinpeople,” quilter Lucy Mingo said.

Since 2002, Gee’s Bend quilts have been the focus of exhibitions at major museums and coffee table books, projects initiated by William S. Arnett, an early collector of the quilts and other works of art by self-taught African American artists from the South.

More recently, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which was established by Arnett, has been making gift/purchase arrangements with museums across the country. Exhibitions featuring the acquisitions were recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (where “Coming Together: Artistic Traditions of the Quilt and the Print” was also mounted). A new series of acquisitions, including Gee’s Bend quilts, was announced this month by Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Brooklyn Museum, the Morgan Library & Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Meanwhile, “Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph” was on view at Swarthmore College through Oct. 28. Gee’s Bend quilts are also featured in “Outliers and American Vanguard Art.” Organized by the National Gallery of Art and recently on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, “Outliers” opens at the Los Angles County Museum of Art Nov. 18.


Gee’s Bend, Ala. | Scene from “While Yet I Live” Directed Maris Curran, Nightshade Films


“I never thought that a quilt would be in the art world. People would think that was beautiful, that something we’d done could be shown all over the world and people get joy out of it,” Essie Pettway said.

“I never thought that a quilt would be in the art world. People would think that was beautiful, that something we’d done could be shown all over the world and people get joy out of it.” — Essie Pettway

At one point in the film, Mary Lee Bendolph leafs through an illustrated volume and points out images of her quilts and identifies those of other women from Gee’s Bend. “I just love to see my beautiful quilt hanging up there,” Bendolph said, “and I don’t know what happened to them but…” She never completes her thought. It’s a troubling moment that hangs in the air and is left unanswered.

The Times report about the recent acquisitions by five museums concludes with this footnote:

“Addressing longtime criticism that the popularity of the Gee’s Bend quilts has not adequately benefited their makers, who are still living in the impoverished Alabama county, the foundation will direct future grants toward community improvements and the women there looking to sell their work.”

In her introduction for “While I Yet Live” for the Op-Doc series, Curran explained what drew her to the project.

“I went to Gee’s Bend with a deep curiosity about the lives and inspirations of these extraordinary artists, whose works hang in museums around the country, including the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I came to listen. To hear what it has meant to raise children, care for parents, work full time, farm and take the time to dedicate to making something beautiful for themselves, their families and their community,” Curran wrote.

“When I spoke with the women in the film, they articulated the joys of their lives as well as the struggles, both systemic and individual. And above all else, Mary Lee Bendolph, Essie Pettway, China Pettway, Rita Mae Pettway and Lucy Mingo emphasized an overarching theme of love—familial love, love of God, and self-love.” CT


FIND MORE about making the film “While Yet I Live” in this interview with Maris Curran, whose feature directorial debut “Five Nights in Maine” (2015) stars David Oyelowo

FIND MORE about how the quilters are gaining control of their legacies


“The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” accompanied the national exhibition tour that originated in 2002. “Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt” coincided with a 2006 exhibition. “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” documents the traveling exhibition opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A catalog was also produced for “Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph” (PDF), the exhibition at Swarthmore College.



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