Housetop and Bricklayer with Bars quilt, ca. 1955. Lucy T. Pettway. Top and back: cotton and acetate. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014. © 2022 Lucy T. Pettway / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
This mid-century quilt is based on the “Bricklayer” pattern and on the “Housetop” design—favorites among Gee’s Bend artists—both of which comprise concentric squares of gradually enlarging scale. The work is a testimony to the ways in which the local environment, including its architecture and landscape, played a direct role in Gee’s Bend quilt design: although it is a variation upon a common quilt pattern, the work is also an abstracted map of the Pettway plantation. The quilter used blocks and strips to represent the former slave cabins surrounding the “big house,” the dirt roads and paths, and the river on one side and the fields on the other.
Born in Gee’s Bend in 1921, Lucy T. Pettway was the fourth of fourteen children and worked in the fields most of her youth, picking cotton, corn, peanuts, sugarcane, peas, and millet. Though she was sporadically educated, she learned to piece and sew at age 12 and made her first quilt the following year. She was subsequently trained by her mother and other skilled quilt makers in Gee’s Bend.
Gee’s Bend, a small rural community situated on a bend on the Alabama River, was named for a 19th-century cotton plantation owner, Joseph Gee. The quilting tradition of the area, originated by slave women, is celebrated for its innovative geometric designs. In 1845 Mark Pettway bought the plantation. Many of the Gee’s Bend artists are descendants of his slaves and carry the Pettway name.