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Quilt Story: Black Rural Women, White Urban Entrepreneurs, and the American Dream
In May 2012 a new exhibition of quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama will open in Nashville. William Arnett, with his companies that all have “Tinwood” in their names, has won recognition as art for the patchwork from this African American hamlet. But there has been criticism. A remark, made in an interview on Alabama Public Television in 2005, when museum-goers were tremendously excited by these gorgeous textiles, indicates part of the problem. Bill Arnett said, “The people, their ideals, the culture itself, and the quilts have not changed a great deal in the past 150 years.”
In the 1960s and 1970s Gee’s Bend was known for the Freedom Quilting Bee, a cooperative that emerged from the Civil Rights Movement. At the end of 2008 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in front of a large audience, Bill Arnett was asked about the relationship between the work from Gee’s Bend that he bought and was showing and the patchwork that the Bee had produced. I heard him bellow, “The best thing the Freedom Quilting Bee ever did for Gee’s Bend was fail.”
I knew this was wrong because in 1968 as a civil rights worker I lived in the Bend (officially, Boykin). In 2009, I made a return visit to find out about what the Arnetts had done there. After talking to those involved with the Bee long ago, interviewing current residents, and doing research on Gee’s Bend’s past, the motives for Bill Arnett’s attitude toward the Quilting Bee and the Bend became clear to me. The Arnetts are not the community’s benefactors, though the place and the quilts have become famous (again) through them. To understand what happened there since Bill Arnett came, it is important to examine, in the context of its experience after slavery, the history of Gee’s Bend and its environs with an eye for the ramifications of a conflict between versions of the American Dream. What has happened there shows the hollowness of the Dream for many Americans. Individual effort, so fundamental to the ideal, is useless when it comes up against powerful people whose version of the American success myth is domination on the basis of unmodulated self-interest.
Back in 1968 I first became aware of Nettie Young, the co-manager at the Freedom Quilting Bee, when I heard someone ask her if the last landowner her family rented from, had been mean. Her reply: “Sometimes. You know if blacks was over whites instead of how it was, we be as bad.” (It took me about thirty years to recognize how wise she was: any group, depending on circumstances, can be a victim or a victimizer.) Nettie’s life shows something that is not a surprise, especially now that questions are being raised about how the bottom 99% of the American population fares. It illustrates how even an American with spectacular personal gifts may not find it possible to sustain the reasonable relationship between work and fair compensation that is the basis of even a modest version of the vaunted Dream.
Her experience – and that of her family – contrasts with the enterprising zealotry of the Arnetts, who have used the art produced by poor rural blacks as a basis for the family business, a career that it almost seems Matt Arnett, Bill’s third eldest son, was preparing for when he majored in African American Studies at Emory University. It is through profiting from their sponsorship of rural black outsider artists like the quilters of Gee’s Bend that the Arnetts have pursued a version of the American Dream that centers on money, power, and the willingness to manipulate others.
One technique was sentimental capitalism, an ostentatious show of affection for people they regarded as commodities. Lovett Bennett was only one of the people from the Bend in 2009 that said, “They treat us like family.” The Arnetts understood that sentiment for the hamlet’s people and their history would appeal to the public even as they distorted and fabricated the identity of both. They endowed the local people with the qualities of simplicity, self-abnegating humility, relentless good nature, unreflective religiosity, timeless values and habits, and a penchant for bursting into gospel songs, giving them a dubious “authenticity” that makes them folk characters,
When I lived in the Bend there were high hopes that things were changing for the better in large part because of the Freedom Quilting Bee. There was high excitement about communal self-help. For me, the decent living conditions alone made the community seem safe and attractive, especially in contrast to the state and state of mind of the tenant farmers in the rest of Wilcox County. Crammed into flimsy, unpainted shacks, often with cotton growing right up to their doors, those tenants often were not even allowed to plant a garden – sometimes not even one tomato plant – on the owner’s land.
The Benders traversed dirt roads on foot or in mule-driven wagons. But, in contrast, they owned their neat little four – or five- room houses and the land they tilled. They had held title to their land for over two decades, and though poor by the standard of annual income, consumer goods, and modern amenities, they appeared comfortable and healthy. The older adults told us about their own past as tenants: brutalizing work from which they often earned nothing; cold, drafty log-and-mortar cabins and pine board shacks that were no better; inadequate clothing; pellagra (a niacin deficiency disease); and schools that were not publicly-provided and met only when there was no field work (with attendance only when students had adequate shoes and clothes).
After lifetimes, separately and together, of sharecropping and tenancy in adjacent Rehobeth, Nettie and Clint Young bought a house and farm in Gee’s Bend in 1955, improving their lot immeasurably. Clint had to leave for months at a time, taking jobs for the money they needed to buy the property while Nettie and the children did the farm work. By 1965 Nettie somehow found time to be an activist for voting rights and to be jailed for it in Camden, the county seat. In 1966 when the Quilting Bee got underway, she became, with almost no formal education, its modestly paid co-manager. About her sharecropper childhood, she told me, “There was sixteen head of chillen in our two-room shack – we have bunk beds all around the walls. We all work in the fields, and sometimes we be hungry. A hard life, but our mama and daddy was good to us.”
Susan Youngblood Ashmore’s Carry It On, The War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama (2008) opens with a critique of the 2006 Gee’s Bend quilt show at the Atlanta Museum of Art, targeting its failure to explain what followed Reconstruction in the South: “Issues of power, dominance, and politics were hidden. The curators assumed that the audience naturally carried enough knowledge about . . . tenant farming and sharecropping.” In the Bend, like elsewhere, the plantation owners got a work force that was nearly without cost, and the farm workers became a caste based on race that had working conditions hardly better than before Emancipation. In Bob Adelman’s Down home, Camden, Alabama (1972), an African American interviewee from Camden says that blacks were “un-free slaves before the Civil War and free slaves after.”
Millions of Southern blacks had already migrated North when tenancy ended in the early 1970s, but it was over sooner in Gee’s Bend. The plantation, owned from 1845 to 1895 by white Pettways, had absentee owners in 1932 when the price of cotton dropped. Unable to pay their debts, the Benders had all of their property seized and nearly starved. In 1935 the federal government bought the land, creating an agricultural cooperative and helping residents to build what continue to be called “project” (or “Roosevelt”) houses. Congress ended Gee’s Bend Farms in 1945, and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) began to sell the land cheaply, with low interest rates, to those with roots there. The people were glad to be landowners, but one hundred acres is too small for truly profitable cotton farming.
Olive Stone, a white anthropologist who lived in Gee’s Bend in the early forties and in 1961, prepared notes for a book she never wrote (archived at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). About being tenants, a man told her, “We done sucked some hard bones till the Project started.” Writing of this period in 1932, Stone makes a judgment: “They could not lick the system of exorbitant interest rates and profits,” and so “when they were cleaned out completely . . . it was as much of a relief to have a halt called to the system of secret bookkeeping and exploitation as it was a calamity.”
The Arnetts (and their publicist) until recently have been reluctant to mention the New Deal transformations that occurred in the 1930s and 40s, probably because these connected the Bend to the larger world. These are noted in their catalogs, where the Arnetts give, in addition to images of quilts, much accurate information, along with many untruths and considerable nonsense. (Often the nonsense is, in my view, in the art criticism, which I will not examine, but the untruths can be about the Bend’s history, some of which I will note).
The “facts” on the Internet, many from newspaper articles, reviews of shows, and even advertisements for products related to the quilts are far more problematic. After Bill put his third eldest son Matt at the helm of the Gee’s Bend project, the Internet accounts became closer to honest, but even now, if one knows enough, it is impossible to read the new Wikipedia entry without seeing the distortions of the Arnett vantage point, e.g., the insistence, against the facts, that many residents “now have real incomes for the first time.”
Bill Arnett’s versions of the Gee’s Bend fable focus on changelessness and unity. In his interview, Bill said, “For the most part . . . people stay in one place, and they marry within the community.” Painting all of its people as descendants of slaves on the plantation, he gave life in the Bend organic coherence. This narrative became the Arnetts’ “brand,” the image of purity that prompted a white-owned corporation to put the name “Gee’s Bend” on their water, bottled across the river in the county seat, Camden.
Paul Arnett is executive editor of Tinwood Books. In The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, in an essay Bill and Paul wrote together, they describe the hamlet as a place that “still is, amazingly, an isolated black community with little influence from Western Art traditions.” Because the river surrounds the Bend on three sides, it was hard to reach, but the Arnetts overstate the case for remoteness. Before the 1970s when automobiles became common, the Benders were relatively isolated, but they were never totally cut off. There was always some contact with others and with Western art (conventions trickle down into popular iconography.) The women got their ideas for quilts from the marriage of disparate conventions intrinsic to all art.
After slavery ended, some people from the plantation earned money off-season working on the roads or in white homes. They brought back the magazine and newspaper pages they used as insulation, and these may have influenced their sense of design. And from early on some residents came and left. The Census data from 1860 and 1870 shows this two-way flow, as do stories in the catalogs and other accounts. One instances among a great many: Nettie’s father, much older than her mother, was sold as a slave to the owners of Gee’s Bend as a child, but after Emancipation moved to the Young plantation nearby to be a sharecropper.
Gee’s Bend Farms, the New Deal agricultural cooperative, was the catalyst for a 1937 article in The New York Times. The co-op had a sizable staff, health workers and teachers, who may have had an impact on the quilters’ sensibility. In the sixties, long after the Benders were small landowners and the Bee was founded, outsiders came to live in the Bend. Its hired professional manager, a white art student, left the position but stayed on with her own family for seventeen years. VISTA workers came in numbers, and one famous artist (Lee Krasner). When progeny moved to cities, visits became routine. In the seventies Benders drove to jobs in textile factories, and that experience with fabrics must have again stretched their visual imaginations.
The remoteness of home may have given them a sense of safety from white predation that threatened most African Americans during the Jim Crow years, and their relative isolation may have encouraged them to enjoy themselves and one another when they could. Stone, the anthropologist, says, “It would be difficult to imagine a more thoroughly relaxed group of people than the heads of households gathered around the community store on a Saturday afternoon, after knocking off work in the fields and getting into clean overalls . . . lounging and joshing.” The women had some fun too. A resident told me, “In the old days the women go ‘round to each other’s houses at night in the fall after picking cotton, to do the quilting part. We didn’t have no telephones, so there was joy in being together.”
The Benders could enjoy social relations only when they were not brutalized by their work. Isabel Wilkerson, in The Warmth of Other Suns (2011), explains that picking a hundred pounds of cotton by hand, a goal on most plantations, was “one of the most backbreaking forms of stoop labor ever known.” It required “pulling a soft lock of cotton” from the flower “seven thousand times . . . turning around and doing the same thing the next day and the next.”
After seeing “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” at the Whitney in 2002, The New York Times’ reviewer Michael Kimmelman described the quilts those former cotton farmers made as “some of the most miraculous works of modernist art America has produced,” comparing them to the paintings of Frank Stella and Barnett Newman. They have been compared to a plethora of other modern artists since.
In December 2007 quilters Annie May Young and Loretta Pettway sued Bill, son Matt, son Paul, and some corporations that had bought the designs (son Harrison was not named). The plaintiffs rejected the Arnetts’ claim that they owned the intellectual property for all quilts made before 1984, Annie Mae charged that she was not paid for the Tinwood’s use of images of her quilts, and she and Loretta charged that they were paid only a “pittance” for the sale of their artistic ideas to corporate entities.
In the Seattle Times that July Sheila Farr examines the legal briefs, noting that in compensation for the use of quilt designs on items sold by Kathy Ireland World Marketing, money was to be paid into a foundation. (The Foundation, however, did not yet, exist.) She continues, “The Seattle Art Museum purchased one of the quilts. . . . When museum officials learned of the lawsuit they contacted Burke [lawyer for the plaintiffs]. . . .They wanted to make sure that the artist had been paid her share of the quilt’s $20, 000 price tag. . . . “ Burke replies, “She has received some sums from the Arnetts but not anything that states what the payments are for and how much they take as a commission.”
Loretta Pettway’s legal brief includes her charge that Matt Arnett dropped by her house to offer her $2,000 if she signed a document stating that the money was “full compensation” for copyright to all images of her art. Illiterate, she wanted to make a copy. Told that if she did, she’d lose the money, she signed what her attorney called “Exhibit A.” In August 2008 the cases were settled out of court.
In Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters (2009), Patricia Turner observes that after the news of the lawsuits, “Journalists tended to privilege Tinwood’s position” and that the December 2008 issue of Quilter’s Newsletter “used only materials from the Arnetts’ side of the case, offering a story on the lawsuits with no perspective from any of the Gee’s Bend quilters or their attorneys.” Shaila Dewan’s wrote in The New York Times (July 29, 2007)that the critics of the Arnetts picked on them as “city slickers” and that the quilters are mostly “satisfied.” Turner (who tried to be neutral about the lawsuits because she believed when her book was published that the case would be settled fairly by a jury trial) told me that some black collectors, fans since Quilting Bee days, worry about the Arnetts’ ethics.
While the Tinwood impresarios value the improvisational kind of patchwork, historically Benders made both types. Turner says that in the 1970s and later, scholars such as Maude Wahlman “proclaimed . . . the beautiful Africanness of Alabama quilts” often by selecting improvised quilts “from communities like Gee’s Bend.” Not being one to leave to chance the dissemination of scholarly ideas that could serve his purposes, Bill Arnett had Tinwood Books bring out a second edition of Wahlman’s study in 2001.
Turner maintains that not all black-made quilts in the United States adhere to the same aesthetic, that some poor whites did similar work, and that impoverished women often had to take what cloth they could get, often poor in quality. From this kind of work we learn that while such quilts can be homely, beauty can also come out of the constraints of poverty. The Quilting Bee let quilters use better cloth and also borrow scissors, thimbles, and other sewing tools in good condition. Inspired creatively by working there, many worked on a one-of-a-kind quilt at night at home.
Returning in 2009 after forty years, I found that Gee’s Bend remains a pretty place, with its fir trees, winding and hilly roads, and, these days, the river easily accessible to view at the ferry dock and roads made bright with painted wooden murals of some of the quilts. But the Bend did not exist outside of time. It had shrunk to about 750 residents from twice that number in 1968. Present were cars, paved roads, and cell phones, and gone was the buzz of young males – local youths and a few VISTA workers – hanging out together in front of the general store. No one farms for profit in Gee’s Bend anymore. Congress built a dam on the river just below Gee’s Bend, in 1968 a third of the rich bottomland was flooded. Soon the state took half of what was left for a park, paying $200 an acre.
I talked with Tinnie (pronounced Tiny) Pettway, from what had long been the Bend’s most entrepreneurial family. She spent decades in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the hub of the Gee’s Bend diaspora. Home now, she owns “That’s ‘Sew’ Gee’s Bend,” and sells quilted items on line, in her daughter’s store in Birmingham, and to tourists that now come to shop, in what had been the Bend’s general store owned by her family. Tinnie had belonged to the Arnett-organized Quilters Collective, and she had traveled to exhibits until Bill threw her out when she began her own quilt-making business.
In her living room cluttered with copies of her first self-published book of verse, The Gee’s Bend Experience (others have followed), Tinnie said in her emphatic, candid manner, “Bill want us to seem as if we don’t go nowhere and don’t know nothin’. At museums he has us go in front of audiences an’ talk. But he tell us how to dress when we do! Almost everybody my age – I was born in ‘38 – move to cities and only a few, like me, come back. He act like people who stay here was trapped in the Bend when the ferry was stopped for forty-four years ‘cause of our activity for civil rights. You never know there is a back road out! It even got paved. In 2006 we get the new ferry, but we still takes the road a lot though it take an hour to get to Camden.”
I read aloud to her a piece about the San Francisco exhibit in the on-line Shotgun Review: “The humble women take little credit for the impact that their quilts have on a viewer.” She responded: “They always say we humble. But we got some pushy women too.” (In her field notes, Stone says that the ideal in 1941, even for women, was “one of quiet dignity. They were not to be too ‘humblish’ when there’s no call for humbling oneself.”)
Rennie Young Miller returned to the Bend after graduating from college in Rochester, New York and having a career as a hospital administrator. Before changing her mind about the Arnetts, she was the first manager of the Collective. Next she tried to revive the Freedom Quilting Bee instead, which, despite slowing down, had sold patchwork into the 1990s. Seated in the spacious workshop that a New York architect designed for the Bee in 1969, Rennie said, in her quiet way, “Bill came grabbing quilts in 1997, paying only very little for them. I thought he would do right at first, and the Quilting Bee seemed finished. Only three people have benefited financially in a big way, and they are closely related. Bill’s favorite is Mary Lee Bendolph, and everyone still involved now is from her family. Right away Bill thought of us as his goldmine. If he’d mentioned museums, people might’ve held out for more money. The quilts are still in his warehouse, and he takes some out for each exhibit. When my mother told him I was going to start the Bee up again after hurricane damage closed it, he snapped, ‘She is not going to do that!’”
Qunnie Pettway, a Collective member, nevertheless complained to me that those who now come to shop usually buy only quilted potholders or bags because the quilts are priced too high. She (like others) tried to sell improvisational work to me privately. Knowing her work, I noted that her “Housetop” quilt from 1975, made after work at the Bee, shows how appealing patterned Gee’s Bend patchwork can be, how original in the subtle ways it deviates from its paradigm and in its offbeat use of color. She defended the Arnett: “Bill took a chance. No one knew if the project would take off when he laid out money to buy the quilts.”
Arnett’s catalogs dwell on the stories of Arlonzia Pettway, then eighty-three (now deceased). Her anecdotes about Dinah Miller, Arlonzia’s great-grandmother, purportedly brought from Africa when she was thirteen, are retold, with legend hardening into supposed fact. We read that Dinah probably arrived in 1859, on the last (illegal) slave ship. Qunnie, also one of Dinah’s great-granddaughters, mumbled that she didn’t “know about her” when she was a girl. “Only she was my grandmother mother.” Rennie Miller commented, ”I never talked to anyone who had ever heard of Dinah before it came out in the book,” and then quipped, “The slave traders said, “We’re taking you to America. Go gather up your things, and don’t forget your quilts.”
Back in Philadelphia, I saw Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s feel-good play titled “Gee’s Bend.” It starts in 1939. In 2009, when I saw it, there was no mention of the New Deal programs, and nothing about how a government agency ultimately created affordable independent farms. There was no mention of the back road nor of the Freedom Quilting Bee. It’s hard not to feel that Wilder was influenced by the Arnetts’ “script,” which usually has the same omissions.
The Arnetts have attacked the Quilting Bee directly and by proxy. In Patricia McKissack’s picture book Stitchin’ and ‘Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt (2008), a child asks “Great-Gran” if she had belonged to the Bee. Referring to its “rules,” the old woman says, “more money./Less freedom./I chose to stay free.” The introduction, by Matt Arnett, says, predictably, “Gee’s Bend has remained unchanged over the years.” But the Quilting Bee itself brought changes. Members sent children to college with the money they earned there. They acquired indoor plumbing, refrigerators, washing machines, and added rooms to their homes. Many today have Social Security only because of employment at the Bee.
For sheer mendacity nothing beats remarks that appeared in 2006 on a United States Postal Service Website about Gee’s Bend commemorative stamps: “Many quilters from Gee’s Bend felt constricted by the standardization of their improvisational techniques, however, and soon left the Freedom Quilting Bee. Most preferred to give up the minimal monetary benefits the cooperative gave them rather than lose the unique aesthetic practices that the community had long nurtured.” Subsequent sites about the stamps omit these two sentences, probably because the USPS Webmaster became aware the information was false.
Once the cooperative began to sell to stores such as Bloomingdale’s, it had to make quilts to specifications, with many women turning out each kind. Designed in Gee’s Bend, the quilts sold were patterned, using some traditional templates and some new ones. The attention the Quilting Bee got in the sixties and seventies exposes the falsity of Arnett’s claim that he is the “discoverer,” and this may explain his animus toward it. His narrative involves Roland Freeman’s A Communion of the Spirits (1993, where the discussion of Gee’s Bend and nearby Alberta (Rehobeth is the old name) makes it clear that for Freeman quilts from that area were still asssociated with the Bee. A photo of a quilt made by Annie Mae Young bowled Arnett over, and says he went looking for the artist – and discovered Gee’s Bend.
The place was hardly unknown. First the Bend got attention for the New Deal programs. In the 1930s there were articles about it in the New York Times Magazine and The Christian Century and photos that became famous taken by Arthur Rothstein and Marion Post Wolcott; in 1941 Robert Sonkin recorded its spiritual music. (In 1968 Roman Pettway, Jr., one of Tinnie’s uncles, made a hilarious story out of going to the Smithsonian on the way back from military service after WWII: “I come from a quiet country place, but on the wall was a big old photograph of my Aunt Sally stirring some greens in a huge pot!”)
In 1965 Martin Luther King made a speech in the Bend. Toward the end of the sixties the Quilting Bee exhibited its work at a folk art show run by the Smithsonian. The abstract expressionist Krasner returned to New York City to talk about the quilts to the art world (failing to get the quilts shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). The Quilting Bee prompted articles in the New Yorker and in the Times in 1969, and quilts from the cooperative were in high-end New York stores. Vogue ran photos of items made by the Bee. Even in the 1980s and ’90s there was Nancy Callahan’s 1987 Freedom Quilting Bee, a 1995 documentary film “From Fields of Promises” (narrated by Ossie Davis), and J.R. Moehringer’s 1999 “Crossing Over” in the Los Angeles Times Magazine.
A white civil rights worker, Father Francis X. Walter, an Episcopal priest from an Alabama Gulf town, was the outsider who truly did something for Gee’s Bend and parts of Wilcox County nearby. (Then and now, many “Gee’s Bend” quilters lived in the other hamlets, usually on or near the back road.) Francis always mentions the crucial role of able local women. Of his co-founder, the co-op’s primary manager Estelle Witherspoon, from Rehobeth, he said, “With more education Estelle could have run a state.”
Lost in Wilcox County while working for the Movement in 1965, he realized that local women could become involved with the civil rights movement through creating a patchwork cooperative that would bring in some cash. In a year or so, working with Mrs. Witherspoon and others, the Bee began work. In 2008 Francis wrote to Times reporter Shaila Dewan that while he had known many of the quilts had value as art, the Bee didn’t try to sell them that way because it “lacked the financial resources and connections” and that the members wanted mainly “to provide an income” to the impoverished women of the county. He added that “the 1960 census recorded that Wilcox County families made less than $1, 550 a year.”
Starting around 2002, the Internet made it easier to circulate the Tinwood perspective. An example (from the Gadsden Times): “Gee’s Bend was barely a blip on the map when the handmade quilts were discovered by Bill Arnett.” Yet, thirty-two years earlier Francis almost certainly had slept under Gee’s Bend quilts when he spent nights at Estelle and Eugene Witherspoon’s house. In June of 2007 in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Matt said, “For forty years a lot of people came . . . and never did anything. We cared enough to do what had to be done.” The Arnetts claimed to put a million dollars into the community and said they’d put in another million, but they did neither.
Residents have told me that only three women – Mary Lee Bendolph; Loretta Bennett (Mary Lee’s niece), who designs at home in Huntsville; and Louisiana Bendolph (Mary Lee’s daughter-in-law), who designs at home in Mobile – have made any real money. Asking why this family is favored, I was told that these chosen artists are gifted, but it is not irrelevant that Mary Lee is agreeable to the point of docility, and, with one exception, her close relatives know not to make trouble.
Because Loretta Pettway is Mary Lee’s first cousin and was one of the plaintiffs, she became almost a pariah in her extended family. In 2007 the two Lorettas and Louisiana Bendolph had been invited to work at Paulson Press in Berkeley to learn how to translate their quilts into prints (etchings). After the lawsuits the followng year, the dealers did not want more legal challenges. Focusing increasingly on Mary Lee’s other kin, the Arnetts called their next exhibit “Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend Quilts, and Beyond.” These close relatives have facilitated Tinwood’s “mission,” stated on its Website, which is to increase “public awareness and appreciation of the vernacular visual arts of the American South.”
Arnett casts himself as the one to whom these people owe all. In The Last Folk Hero (2006), Andrew Dietz quotes Bill: “They feed themselves with welfare checks. Gee’s Bend was a welfare state forever until we got there, and [we] made it more or less self-sufficient.” (Angered by this, Rennie said, “Not many ever got welfare here. Benders did such hard work from dawn to sundown. That man ought to be made to plow and pick cotton!”) Bill and Matt made countless visits, one Easter bringing Jane Fonda, dressed as a bunny. (She owns 50% of the quilts bought initially, and her daughter has two children by Matt.)
At the end of 2007, after the economic downturn and the lawsuits, the quilts stopped selling in galleries. Usually made by the two women that sued and the favored three, they went for hefty sums. (At the peak the quilts in Seattle were for sale for $11,000 to $35,000 each.) I believe that gallery sales were meant to be the big sources of profit for the Arnetts. Lovett Bennett told me that until the gallery sales stopped, the checks with payment were not sent directly to the quilter or to the Collective. They were made out to and sent to Tinwood, rewritten at its office in Atlanta, and sent on to Gee’s Bend. No one knows if “costs” were deducted in the process or in some cases if any money at all went to the artists. In 2009 Bennett, who headed the Gee’s Bend the Foundation, said that it had no money at all. He “had words” with Matt Arnett on whether the Collective should sell on the Internet (still not possible), and some time after that Lovett resigned as President. (In 2011, his wife Loretta broke with Tinwood to sell her work independently.)
The affectionate Arnetts are tough businessmen. In 1997 Mensie Lee Pettway, who was given her house and land by the Freedom Quilting Bee, sold her quilts to him, and several made by her mother, for $100 each, trying and failing to receive a better price. Mensie Lee’s daughter, a single mother, who lives in the Bend has a grueling, low-paying job filleting catfish at a plant in Uniontown. There are others too who feel they exchanged a birthright for a handful of dollars, with two women claiming they were never paid for theirs.
As tenants the Benders were used to knowing that they had been cheated. Stone records that former renters told her about how they had fared economically each year,which, since few had had schooling, they had memorized in detail. She was struck “by the remarkable grasp for figures, the memory for details of operation, credit, production, profits and indebtedness. . . . [They] could tell with accuracy what the state of affairs was currently and for as far back as the 1890’s, in some instances.” While renting they broke even only 40% of the time and often lost money. Things got considerably better with land ownership. But, she wrote, “It rankled . . . that all roads in the country [were] hard surfaced except their own.” And not all racism was local. The Gee’s Bend farmers, once independent, had a harder time than their white counterparts because the U.S. Department of Agriculture was reluctant to extend credit and subsidies to blacks.
Museums ought to be especially responsible about what they tell the public about outsider art, and art professionals critical of what they are told by entrepreneurs. A review of a show in Florida, about social workers discovering the quilts, is totally made up. The reporter told me that the curator of the exhibit had given her the (mis)information at Media Day. Instead of repeating uncritically what they are told, the staff should explain the history of exploitation in the tenant system, the role of the Department of Agriculture, and the the concept of intellectual property.
Many art professionals continue to believe in the Arnetts, with whom they have been or become chummy. Bernard Herman, in Gee’s Bend, The Architecture of the Quilt, refers to the “many conversations” he had with Bill and “time spent in Gee’s Bend with Matt.” In the March 2009 issue of the Journal of Modern Craftsmanship Herman says that in regard to the lawsuits the entrepreneurs and art itself are the losers. Yet accusations about Arnett’s treatment of the black folk artists under his sway are not new.
Among other things, in 1993 Morley Safer on “60 Minutes” charged him with shady practices in his dealings with outsider artists, and in 2006 Dietz’s The Last Folk Hero reveals similar behavior.
The profiteering continues. The Arnetts are still selling the Gee’s Bend name and quilt designs to corporations for the manufacture of housewares such as rugs, lamps, and quilt-making kits. Most of these are now only generally reminiscent of the Bend’s artwork, and the artists are unnamed. But some are exact copies. Mary Ann Pettway, the Collective’s manager (Mary Lee’s niece), says, “No royalties. I don’t know of any checks.”
The Pottery Barn is selling replicas of Gee’s Bend quilts, and Barbara Barran has rugs and mats made in India. Once more I haven’t heard of a quilter getting paid for the use of her original design. I don’t see much art in most of Barran’s Classic Rug Collection nor in some of the commodities sold earlier. Images on the rugs and other items bear only a vague or grotesque relationship to a beautiful original. This works against the Arnetts’ expressed goal that vernacular art “be recognized as simply ‘art’” in that they have helped turn the crafted designs of the Bend’s artists into, at best, ordinary household objects. Tinwood was administratively dissolved as a nonprofit in Georgia in 2005, but got nonprofit status in Delaware, a “corporate haven.” If the Arnetts’ companies are not for profit, why sell designs to home decorating corporations?
Today even those quilters that are outraged by the Arnetts are unwilling to sue. Some seem to feel, like the Benders that Stone wrote about in 1943, “the futility of arguing . . . in an unevenly matched situation.” Knowing that almost all of the incomes are meager at best, they’d have been surprised to read in the Hartford Stage playbill that Wilder’s play is “the story of the women of Gee’s Bend, who quilted their way to economic freedom.” No one living in the community is better off as the result of Tinwood, other than Mary Lee Bendolph. Some in the extended Bendolph clan still enjoy traveling to exhibits and various events, but most receive no benefit except that they are proud of its international fame – it’s mentioned in almost every reference to quilts as art and has even inspired a symphony for guitar and orchestra that has been performed by philharmonics in several cities.
The Benders as a group have little money, but most of the older folk can live without acute deprivation because they own house and land (used for growing vegetables that can be preserved). Many have grandchildren with them. Sometimes now their adult children even live, with their kids, in trailers on their land. Today they worry about progeny who went to cities for a better life and often sent money home. These descendants may be anxious about holding on to jobs and homes, and some have lost both. The real unemployment rate for blacks is at least 25 percent, and African Americans were targeted for loans that led to foreclosure.
Some younger people who care about the Bend are doing well, however, in spite of having moved away.<strong> </strong>Tinnie’s daughter, Claudia Pettway Charley, owner of a store in Birmingham that sells the items made by her mother’s quilt business, described, what she and some others hope to do in the Bend: “Our goals . . . include a gift shop, restaurant and lodging.” Then she mentioned projects that would bring tourism, improve public services, provide jobs, training, and other opportunities (Birmingham News, March 10, 2011). Tinnie, who recently hired two more quilters, calls these plans “Taking Back Gee’s Bend,” but she admits to concern about what will happen.
Some residents are concerned about the repeated stories that the Benders burned old quilts to keep away mosquitos. Mensie Lee Pettway said, “Arnett makes us look stupid. We only burned old raggly quilts, Maybe we didn’t know they was art, but we knowed what was beautiful.” Rennie addressed the heart of the problem: “We’re not all alike. My friends and I couldn’t wait to get out of the Bend. I never learned to quilt as a girl. It was part of everything we wanted to get away from. I wasn’t humble then, and, while I’ve changed about quilting and the Bend, I’m still not humble!” My aim has been to provide a glimpse of a few Benders as people, not as simple, “natural” folk. The unevenness of the match between the powerful and disempowered is heightened by the erroneous assumption that the poor and uneducated are essentially different from the advantaged.
Uncomfortable with the Arnetts’ methods, Greg Kucera, gallery owner in Seattle, told Matt in conversation that they should use bills of sale when they buy items and that they should have started off by taking quilts on consignment instead of grabbing on the cheap nearly everybody’s patchwork. Loretta Pettway had a solo show in early fall, 2011 at the Kucera gallery – a few etchings and a quilt made in 1987. Greg got the quilt on consignment from Loretta’s family. He considers her “the singularly most gifted living artist of her generation from the Gee’s Bend group,” and admires that she “binds herself to her anger” about the history of Gee’s Bend, especially after slavery and again after the Arnetts came.
It seems likely that if there had been a jury trial the lawsuits would have been decided in favor of the artists (when cases are settled out of court, the plaintiffs are not allowed to talk about the resolution). Wouldn’t a jury have wondered why Tinwood would have needed the signature of Loretta Pettway if the Arnetts, as they claimed in their legal defense, already owned the intellectual property of all quilts made before 1984? If the Arnetts had won, royalties would have meant that the women had quilted their way to more of life’s little comforts.
What Tinwood has done amounts to a heist of the Bend’s heritage. Quilts should at least have been bought for a fair price. Marketing ploys that exploit cultural fantasies by people and places may be business as usual, but they undermine our sense of them as varied and competent. It would seem, given their history of exploitation, that the Benders would have been suspicious of Tinwood, but it is likely that the Arnetts put them off guard by tactics such as calling the quilters’ group a “collective” (hardly part of the rhetoric of 2003). Were they were trying to create the sense that they were in some sense creating another cooperative, with which the Bend had had such good experiences? Bill Arnett denies the truth about the value of the Quilting Bee, yet anyone old enough to remember its hey-day in Wilcox County could tell you that it bettered conditions, raised morale, was fun, and heightened confidence in the civil rights comes movement.
The humane behavior that the Arnetts can choose to demonstrate at times is less significant for most of the quilters than the dealers’ predatory attitude towards those they are hoping to profit from. When Mary Lee Bendolph had a stroke, Bill moved her to a better hospital. The episodic kindness of Tinwood’s entrepreneurs is “paternalistic,” reminiscent of the old-time landowners under the caste system. In Plantation County (1955) Morton Rubin, a sociologist studying Wilcox County in the late forties, quotes a planter: “You have to give an old woman a cabin and some garden space, else the others will think you don’t care for them and . . . and wouldn’t work so well.” Today educated “worldly” men like the Arnetts are unlikely to feel blacks are innately inferior, as Rubin’s planter in the forties probably did. Economic class can trump race.
A hostile on-line comment in response to a forum on poverty in the Nation expresses this bromide: “If someone is wealthy that ‘wealth’ has been created by their own efforts and not taken from someone else.” Nettie Young – capable, good-natured, wise and funny, willing to fight for her rights, with a firm belief in God’s love and justice – had reason to think otherwise. As the child of sharecroppers, Nettie worked in fields owned by the white, well-to-do Youngs and owned by the white and wealthy Wilkinsons, contributing to their affluence. Rearing her brood of eleven in shacks, she toiled on until age 38 – having almost nothing materially – when it became possible to purchase Gee’s Bend property. Then, as an old woman, Nettie was again bilked out of compensation for her labor. Tinwood sold the design of a quilt she made in 1971, and different versions of a rug inspired by it are still being sold by corporate Kathy Ireland.
The attempt to revive the Freedom Quilting Bee has run out of steam, and Tinwood’s Collective members earn little from what tourists buy. They work in their own homes, and the half of the price that was distributed among its members when a quilt is sold is no longer shared. The Arnetts would seem to be moving on to other enterprises, yet the new exhibit is starting in May, organized by their own foundation, Souls Grown Deep, and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
Descriptions of the show say it will highlight the parallels between the quilts and the work of Thornton Dial (a self-taught black assemblage artist) and the “African American aesthetic traditions,” the most relevant being the “yard art of the rural south.” The term is murky, but can refer to art made from what is found in the yard (old tires, a bottle) or what can be seen from the yard that generates aesthetic representation, the small houses, outbuildings, fences, and so on. The Arnetts are seeking control over the definition of African American vernacular art.
To disseminate their theories, those that are right and those that are wrong, the Arnett family by now has the support of the tangle of foundations and publishing resources they own, the art historians they influence, and the art centers with which they are connected. Tinwood has been able to succeed because of this. Also, as this paper has shown, the ease of manipulating public relations in the age of the Internet; the attitudes, practices, and alliances in the art community; bias in the media; and, not least, its way of doing business solely in Tinwood’s interests is part of the mix.
Nettie, however, despite severe economic trials early on and injustice near the end, held on to her property and had a responsible position at the Bee, helping herself and others to benefit from cooperative endeavor. She and her children exemplify the disparity in what is meant by the American Dream in that she rose from abject poverty by an extraordinary work ethic, personal qualities, and good fortune, and she saw her children rise from what most Americans would consider near-poverty, through study or training to success as salaried professionals and skilled workers.
This form of the archetypal American success story does not depend on an untoward impact on others. But those who strive to succeed, always wanting more – no matter what their reaching higher and higher does to others – may win praise, fame, wealth – and they may impede the efforts of the first group to benefit from their own struggles.
It’s well-known that more urbane talent seekers and dealers have frequently been unscrupulous with less sophisticated folk-artists of all races, and they have – mythologized and cheated – them. Indeed, this has been standard procedure (that musicians have been exploited hardly shocks people who know about the experience of blues, jazz, rock n’roll, or country music performers and composers). It is an old story, but certain aspects of what happened in Gee’s Bend stand out.
First, the hypocrisy of the family that owns Tinwood and the lengths it has gone to convince the public: the Arnetts represent themselves not just as businessmen in the arts, but as persons deeply interested in advancing African American culture in the South (and they see to it that others depict them that way). Eugene Metcalf, an academic in American Studies, have edited and contributed to Arnett’s catalogs and is part of the pack of professors Tinwood always draws on. He argues in Raw Vision, Volume 55, an on-line publication (Summer 2006), that Arnett is a heroic fighter against exclusionary cultural homogeneity in the field of vernacular art.
Second, the Gee’s Bend story raises questions about the implications of the supposedly unique opportunity that exists in America to advance up the class ladder. We need to face the fact that it is harder now for those at the bottom in the USA to achieve upward mobility than in many other countries – and that the success to which some aspire can get in the way of the kind of prosperity most people pursue. Should these two approaches to rising even have the same name?
When Nettie Young died in 2010 at ninety-two, Matt Arnett had possession of two of her quilts. Her daughter asked him to bring these to the funeral, and she told me that Matt came and made an almost fulsome speech about her mother. In keeping with the Arnetts’ usual veneer of intense feeling, he wept, but didn’t bring the quilts.
- Editor's Note: This article was originally published January 26, 2012, at BlackCommentator.com. Photo by jimmywayne via Flickr photostream, used with Creative Commons 2.0 License.