Artist: Mary Lee Bendolph
“I can walk outside and look around in the yard and see ideas all around the front and back of my house. ” The seventh of sixteen children, Mary Lee Bendolph has spent her entire life in Gee’s Bend. She learned how to quilt from her mother, Aolar. Bendolph gave birth to her first child at age fourteen, which prevented her from attending school beyond sixth grade. She married Rubin Bendolph in 1955 and their family grew to include eight children. Over the years, she has worked in a variety of textile-related jobs, mostly making army uniforms. Since retiring in 1992, Bendolph has found more time to quilt. She gathers design ideas by looking at the world around her. Anything—from people’s clothes at church, to her barn, to quilts hanging on clotheslines in front yards, to how the land looks when she’s high above it in an airplane—can inspire her. For her materials, she prefers fabric cut from used clothing because it avoids wastefulness and because she appreciates the “love and spirit” in old cloth.
Artist: Loretta P. Bennett
“I came to realize that my mother, her mother, my aunts, and all the others from Gee’s Bend had sewn the foundation, and all I had to do now was thread my own needle and piece a quilt together. ” Loretta P. Bennett is the great-great-granddaughter of Dinah Miller, a woman who was brought to Alabama from Africa as a slave in 1859. As a child, Bennett picked cotton and other crops. She attended school in Gee’s Bend until seventh grade, when she was bused to high schools that were a two-hour drive away. Bennett was introduced to sewing around age five by her mother, Quinnie, who worked at the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative established in 1966 in the nearby neighborhood of Rehoboth.
Artist: Louisiana Bendolph
Until she was sixteen, Louisiana Bendolph worked in the fields from sunup to sundown every day of the week except Sunday, when she went to church with her family. She and her husband Albert (whose mother is Mary Lee Bendolph) moved from Gee’s Bend to Mobile, Alabama, in 1980, though she considers Gee’s Bend her home. She made quilts intermittently throughout her life, at times using patterns from books. However, she had not quilted for many years when she went to the 2002 opening of The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition inspired her to return to quilt-making. She said, “When I was coming back from Houston…I started having visions of quilts…So I got a pencil and a piece of paper and drew them out. Finally I decided that I would get some fabric and make a quilt…The images wouldn’t go away…And I’ve kept on doing it because those images won’t leave me alone.”