Loretta Pettway Bennett (b. 1960), Strips (detail), 2005
Cotton and denim, 96 x 76 in.; Studio Museum in Harlem, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation
An often-mentioned design triumph of the Gee’s Bend aesthetic has been its quiltmakers’ magnification of small pattern blocks to monumental scales so that the single element becomes the entire composition. Loretta P. Bennett takes this tendency a step further in her quilts. Instead of amplifying a single block or making freeform abstractions of rectangles and strips (another Gee’s Bend specialty), she composes in ways reminiscent of a photographer. She is able to identify and expand alluring details and passages of traditional Gee’s Bend “quilts”—not actual quilts, but ones of her own imagining. She enlarges these framed and cropped passages to become quilts unto themselves. She preserves the monumental structure of the one-block quilts while combining it with a photographer’s eye for the telling detail and the perfectly bounded arrangement of elements.
Like most girls in Gee’s Bend, Loretta Pettway Bennett learned to quilt from the women around her. Creating quilts was so essential to the women of her family that she says, “It was implanted in my genes.” She was married at eighteen and moved with her husband to Germany for the first of three tours with the armed forces there. Over the years, between her travels and raising her children, she made some baby quilts and a full-sized quilt or two, and most ambitiously, after a trip back to Gee’s Bend, a “Wedding Ring” quilt that took her three years to complete. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition was something of a born-again experience for her. After seeing it at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2002, “My eyes were opened,” she remembers. She began to wonder whether she, too, could make a quilt that might someday hang on the wall of a museum.
Between 2003 and 2006, Bennett made approximately twenty-five quilts and frequently collaborated with her mother, Qunnie Pettway. They are informed by her travels. It was always the colors she noticed—the dour monochrome of German winters or the displays of red and green chili peppers and the bright yellow, orange, pink and purple clothes and cars in Mexico.
Bennett frequently draws her patterns first on paper and colors them with crayons. She then pieces the patterns into quilts with old clothes she gathers from family and friends or scavenges in thrift shops, continuing the Gee’s Bend ethos of creative reuse.
Loretta Pettway Bennett’s work is in the permanent collections of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Legacy Museum.
Learn more about Loretta Pettway Bennett here.
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