Mary Ann Pettway sings sometimes when she is sewing. “It’s like medicine” she says of the handwork she overlays with song, “I suffer from arthritis but you wouldn’t know it if I don’t tell you. Because I can just be quilting and I don’t have a pain in the world.  I will sit there and sometimes I will sing a little to myself or sing out a little loud.”

The strips and wedges of fabric fitted into the surface of May Day alternate between cream, sun, and coal. Because so many of the wands are crisply rectangular where their edges meet, the sloping compression of layered, horizontal strips near the midsection of the quilt feels more and more like the swaying heart holding the whole together. On the underside, which we cannot see, a pattern of hand-stitched curves moves across the white fabric in the pattern of a shell.

Fig 24. Pettway, Mary Ann, May Day, 2012, cotton fabric, thread, Stanley Education Partners

Both a member and manager of the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective, Pettway is one part of a living tradition whose originators were largely anonymous members of a remote community in Boykin, Alabama, a rural township surrounded on three sides by water. Twenty years ago the “discovery” and subsequent explosion of interest in these quilts resulted in a series of exhibitions from Houston to New York that was quickly followed by questions of whether the women who created this work had been fairly compensated for it. Alongside lawsuits focused on licensing agreements, there were significant conversations differentiating the necessity-driven purpose of quilts completed nearly a century ago from quilts made for the market of the present day, when the aesthetic of Gee’s Bend has become iconic enough to be on postage stamps. All of these intersections between extraction, property, hand skills, survival, invention, ownership, and the legacy of enslavement are present in any encounter with this tradition. 

Maybe music remains the best analogy — the way a song can place you back in a moment when you betrayed yourself, or another, or both, while still resembling a prayer. You’re hearing whatever tune is in your head. You’re living in or just to the side of a country trying to put the pieces of a country inside of itself — maybe an inexistent country or a claim of what it was, or could be, which is always falling apart. The tempo is a stitching, a method of going on, holding together, making do.

But it was medicine that Pettway told the interviewer she was getting from this work. Because art may just be a throwaway term for transmutation. That is one thing you are thinking about as the clip continues and you watch the sound of her voice carrying the line, calm and loud this time (“he’s calling/ he’s calling by the thunder”) as the camera cuts away to a place on the water, panning left and down from moss-draped branches to see the still surface of the river filling up with sky. Wallace Willis — Black, Choctaw, enslaved — wrote “Steal Away” before emancipation and it moved from the fields to the forests, as one kind of signaling for the Underground Railroad. The water the camera is tracing was named for a slaveholder, Joseph Gee, who staked his claim to the area in 1816. It would be a lie to say that, because of a nation’s stamps, this name and territory have been definitively reclaimed by the people whose ways of reassembling the world have made it famous, even if the ancestors who initiated this practice were not people but property in Gee’s estimation.   

Because its name is still its name. And because when you seek out the short documentary on May Day in Gee’s Bend that was broadcast on public television, you can watch how this holiday occasions joy, marking homecoming with a parade, baseball games, the wrapping of the maypole in a weave of gold and purple. But as the host discusses their geographic isolation with residents and even acknowledges the challenging decades in which ferry service to the area ceased entirely, it will remain possible for you, the viewer, to have no idea why that happened. 

The ferry stopped running in 1962, after Boykin’s predominantly African-American residents, encouraged by a visit from Martin Luther King Jr., boarded it to take the 15-minute ride to the county seat of Camden in order to vote. Forty-four years transpired without any service at all. In 2021 and 2022 new voter suppression bills disproportionately affecting turnout among younger, less affluent, and non-white citizens have been passed within the former confederacy and beyond, including the state of Iowa.

If what we want, when looking at these quilts, is to revere their intricate capacities for repair, or to believe that they might be holding out hope for any “us” being held together within this hypothesis of a democracy, we should admit to the possibility that we are asking art to do what we cannot. Not if we think that art is a matter of what has already been done, rather than what remains to be done.