Loretta Pettway Bennett (b. 1960), Work-clothes quilt (detail), 2003
Denim, 79 x 60 in.; Private Collection
Throughout the lexicon of African American culture, castaway objects are often used to reaffirm life, as the reinvestment of creative energy in old and outworn things suggests the possibility of turning adversity into spiritual triumph. The tradition of the work-clothes quilt is part of that practice; for Bendolph, the transformation of old fabrics into beautiful, comforting quilts became a metaphor for surviving hard times. In her own words, “They remind you of where you have been and where the Lord have brought you from.” In this quilt from 2002, Bendolph created a brooding patchwork composed almost entirely of worn blue jean scraps. But here and there within the dark, heavy ﬁeld are passages of brilliant red. Even more paradoxical is the appearance of a few other squares of cloth printed with a delicate pink flower pattern—a symbol of regeneration.
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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