GEE’S BEND, Ala. (WIAT) – On Saturday, they all came to Gee’s Bend. They came from Birmingham and Montgomery. They came from New York and California. And they came from right up the road.
They’d all come for a first – a festival dubbed the Airing of the Quilts – that aimed to bring the world to Gee’s Bend.
Marlene Bennett Jones, for her part, was happy for the world to come.
On Saturday, the Gee’s Bend quilter sat at a white folding table and shared her craft. Participants in Ms. Marlene’s workshop had come to the small, rural community in Wilcox County to learn from her for a couple of hours during the festival: to complete a pilgrimage many had made before them.
She welcomed them with open arms, a quick wit, and a quilting needle.
“Do they talk to each other well?” Ms. Marlene looked inquisitively at the state transportation worker from Auburn sitting across from her. She gestured at the combination of patterned fabrics in her hand: “Do these make good neighbors?”
She waited for a response, but she already had her own answer. Marlene Bennett Jones has been discerning good neighbors from bad for more than seven decades.
A native Bender, Ms. Marlene is one of dozens of African-American quilters whose work has been featured in art galleries and on fashion runways worldwide. Gee’s Bend quilts, the New York Times once wrote, are “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”
The rise of the Gee’s Bend quilts to the apex of modern art wasn’t without its faults, though. In 2008, three Gee’s Bend quilters – Annie Mae Young, Lucinda Pettway Franklin, and Loretta Pettway – settled a lawsuit that claimed Bill Arnett, a collector of rare Black art, cheated them out of earnings from their work. The terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed.
The claims in the lawsuit gave voice to a sentiment that had long settled in the red clay of Gee’s Bend. Commercial exploitation, facilitated by the white fetishization of Black culture, had always been a danger. It still is.
On Saturday, that danger felt distant, but it loomed large. Hundreds of tourists had descended on the Bend for the festival, run in part by a foundation formed by Bill Arnett years before his passing.
The tourists, often naive to the complex history of the Bend, were eager to find connection and meaning in their visit to the remote community. Some of them tried to find that connection through Ms. Marlene. She was happy to oblige.
The transportation worker asked Ms. Marlene about her family. Did she teach her grandson to quilt?
“Yes, I did somewhat, but the patience isn’t there,” she said.
Ms. Marlene explained that she’s also had to spend some time outside of Gee’s Bend, traveling to Atlanta every few weeks. Isolation, she said, comes with its advantages. But it comes with drawbacks, too.
“There’s no hospital here,” she explained. “So that makes things hard.”
Gee’s Bend, like much of rural Alabama, has suffered from a continued, unrelenting lack of access to healthcare infrastructure. It’s an issue that the pandemic made all the more apparent.
Ms. Marlene said she “came across” COVID-19 a while back.
“It was really bad,” she said. Her voice trailed off as her attention turned to her work – correcting a stitch a tourist had placed too close to the fabric’s edge.
Still, in the cool October air, Ms. Marlene doesn’t seem hopeless at all. She seems happy. Dignified. Proud to share her life’s work, stitch by stitch – even if it’s with tourists and not her own, impatient grandson.
A few feet away, her family heirloom quilts hang from twine strewn between oak trees. They blow in the wind as Ms. Marlene sets her students straight.
“You’ve got to ask yourself,” she said, her eyes peering over her bright pink glasses. “Are they working well together? Are they talking to each other?
She pauses for a moment.
“Will they be good neighbors?”