Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 5, 2024
Lisa Gail Collins Stitching Love and Loss: A Gee's Bend Quilt Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2023. 200 pp.; 24 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (9780295751603)

A little over ten years ago, I received two crib quilts made and gifted by family members at a baby shower celebrating my first-born daughter, Abigail. There were many “oohs” and “ahhs” from family and friends, as they knew the quilts were carefully made with love and joy for the baby’s arrival. Several years prior, I had directed and produced a documentary called The Skin Quilt Project, which recounted African American quilters and scholars telling of the transformative power of the African American quilt tradition across the United States, including in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. African American quilters in the film shared how they used creative methods to challenge societal pressures, skin color politics, and negative perceptions of Blackness through their quilts. Due to my personal history with African American quilts, these special gifts were timely, significant, and thoughtful representations of cultural heritage and traditions, signaling that my growing daughter’s life would be nourished and affirmed.

Sadly, a few months later my daughter Abigail’s life would take an unexpected turn when she passed away three days after she was born. After the devastation of mourning her death, the two quilts quickly became reminders of loss and grief rather than celebration and comfort. The embroidered letters on each quilt depicting her initials “ASC” and “Abigail Sophie” were at times too much to bear. As the years passed, I would slowly find a way to be okay with these quilts even as they carried with them my dreams of motherhood delayed.

Years later, I would be celebrating with two more baby showers, one for my rainbow baby, Isabelle, and the other for my son, Peter. Once again, I would be showered with more quilts handmade by family members. When Isabelle and Peter were born, growing healthy and strong, Abigail’s quilts finally became a source of comfort, marking her loss but also carrying her memory and legacy. I had never been able to articulate the multivalent meaning(s) of these quilts until reading Lisa Gail Collins’ Stitching Love and Loss: A Gee’s Bend Quilt.

Like Missouri Pettway, a quilter from Gee’s Bend, Alabama referenced in Collins’s book, the quilts made for Abigail empowered me to mourn my daughter’s loss just as Pettway had used her deceased husband’s old work clothes to remember, mourn, and honor him. Collins conveys Pettway’s powerful story through the widow’s own documented accounts and those of her daughter, Arlonzia Pettway, also a quilter of Gee’s Bend who described her mother’s wonderous act as: “taking his work clothes, shaping them into a quilt to remember him, and covering up under it for love” (emphasis mine) (xi).

For Pettway, making the quilt not only brought physical warmth but a memory and feeling of her husband, reminding her that she was loved by him even though he was gone. As Collins describes, quilts serve a vast purpose throughout the ecosystem of Gee’s Bend from comforting women in childbirth, holding newborns, and transitioning the dead; Pettway’s quilt was created for her comfort but also for her own emotional survival and well-being.

In the Introduction to the book, Collins recalls how—in keeping with her mother’s expressed intentions—Arlonzia witnessed the making of the quilt and foregrounds the key questions and considerations she explores throughout the text such as the ways that people deal with loss and mourning, and how a material object can be used to help those who are grieving a loved one’s death. The personal loss of the author’s father helped to frame this project around the “lessons” Pettway’s quilt could teach her about how to grieve and hold on to previous memories. Based on over a decade of research and three trips to Gee’s Bend, Collins’s book analyzes Pettway’s quilt visually and materially from the stains on the knees of her husband Nathaniel’s work clothes to her daughter Arlonzia’s memories of the quilt. Together these stories weave the historical impact of slavery, poverty, spirituality, and community in Gee’s Bend, providing a deeper understanding of the role of quilts within the Southern Black Belt of Alabama.

Comprised of five chapters, the body of the book thoroughly expands our understanding of Gee’s Bend. In chapter one, Collins unpacks the impact of slavery on the area from plantation owners to descendants of enslaved people living in the community. Collins argues that quilts are essential to the town’s topography and landscape, covering up holes in the floors and windows of homes and ensuring that one’s family is warm. They are critical to survival and a resource to those in poverty.

In chapter two, Collins describes quilts in Gee’s Bend as not just a physical necessity but as a carrier of histories and memories of those who made or possessed them. More than strips and scraps sewn together, they were used to share stories, traditions, and communal memories with future generations. Collins tells the story of how Arlonzia learned her family history from her grandmother while sitting on family quilts. Her grandmother shared stories about how their ancestors were brought to America during enslavement. One powerful story revealed that Arlonzia’s ancestor was captured because of their interest in red cloth, a tactic frequently used to capture and enslave Africans. Collins references related slave narratives of the WPA era, oral histories that use quilts for storytelling, and research that affirms the function that quilts serve in the Pettway family.

In chapter three, Collins explores the creation of personal sacred space through quilting, recalling the ways quilting is sometimes joined with prayer to offer a “stilled time and graced space conducive to introspection and connecting and communicating within and beyond the self” (44). This reality is often shared by African American quilters outside of Gee’s Bend, too. When I traveled the country doing research for my documentary, it was not uncommon to hear African American quilters speak of the physical and spiritual healing experience of working with fabric. Similar stories are shared in Collin’s text of the sacred space created when quilting alone, which allows one to connect with the divine.

Chapter four addresses the socioeconomic circumstances in Gee’s Bend that impact the quilters’ labor conditions and quilt-making. For instance, the fabric used may reflect the extreme poverty of a quilter as well as stories of recovery from loss and personal hardships. The necessity of quilts to keep one’s family warm meant that many women in Gee’s Bend had to make quilts while also managing fieldwork to survive. A quilt could also be used as currency or as a means of support for families in need. What truly hit home in this chapter in the context of my own story, was the connections between quilts and infant mortality both in Gee’s Bend and throughout the Black Belt, where the loss of a child is “carried in the quilts” as a way for mothers to mourn their children (88).

The fifth chapter outlines how quilting is used for gathering people in community to support emotional wellness. Where chapter three focuses on the sacred space of quilting alone, this one focuses on quilt work done in collaboration with others. These quilt gatherings create a sense of community while assisting in sewing the layers of a quilt together. Collins describes this process as a “collective ministry” where quilt-makers use those moments together as profound expressions of their faith (96).

Following an affirming conclusion, in the coda, Collins explores the impressive list of people who have journeyed to Gee’s Bend to capture the quilters’ stories. She lists all the artists, writers, thinkers, and creatives whose work has enabled others to learn and study the region’s history. In 2009, when I traveled to Gee’s Bend to interview quilters for my documentary, I was surprised to learn that many of the women did not see themselves as artists; yet, it was clear that they were beginning to understand the impact of their quilts outside of their community.

The most critical discussion in the book is Collins’s analysis of collectors of Gee’s Bend’s quilts as people journeyed to the region in hopes of taking bits of the community with them. From Howard University professor Sterling Brown to the late collector and art historian William (Bill) Arnett, (1939–2020) Collins reflects on “what a community accustomed to living with and through quilts” does “when an extensive number of its extant quilts—the material legacies of a surviving history and a living tradition generation in the making—are collected and taken away?” (127). Of the many people who are “pulled” to Gee’s Bend, Collins is especially concerned with the scale of collecting from Bill Arnett, who ultimately purchased Pettway’s quilt from her daughter, Arlonzia, and donated it to the National Gallery of Art in 2020. Collins wonders if the quilt was truly theirs to give away saying, “I can also imagine a loving heir or someone with close ties to the quilt and its source community wanting it close to home, or close at hand, and seeking its rightful return”(130). In the end, Collins concludes that what is most important is “honoring the needs and wishes of the descendants of the creator” (130). In the case of Arlonzia, she preferred to preserve her mother’s quilt in a museum rather than risk the possibility of its loss, wear and tear, or neglect.  

While Collins’s critique, which is shared by other scholars, might appear to challenge the collecting of African American quilts, these critical conversations actually push the field to do so mindfully while also educating African American families about how they can preserve the stories of their ancestors. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)’s Save Our African American Treasures program has become a national model for teaching preservation within African American communities. When armed with the right tools and knowledge, families can feel empowered to pursue the options that work best for them.

This brings me to my own crib quilts gifted by family members for my beautiful children as symbols of loss, love, and triumph. I am compelled to write on the backs of the quilts, noting the people who made them and what they meant to me so that this history will not be forgotten. Perhaps one day if they are hanging in a museum their story, value, and importance will not be omitted. Whatever my descendants choose to do will be an extension of our cultural heritage, a legacy to be passed down and to nourish future generations.

Lauren Cross
Gail-Oxford Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts, PhD