GEE’S BEND, Alabama (Reuters) - Their story is a heartwarming tale gone sour. In an obscure village in rural Alabama a group of women toiled for decades to make a living.
In their spare time they made brightly colored quilts for warmth, for fun and as an outlet for their creative energy, following a tradition passed down from mother to daughter since the days of slavery in Alabama.
“Quilts were a consolation to me. I didn’t have so much worry when I was making quilts. I just kept my mind on the quilts,” said Nettie Young, who started to make quilts at age 6 using off-cuts from old pieces of material and is now in her 90s.
Their lives were anonymous until, a decade ago, the few dozen women were discovered by international art collector Bill Arnett, who recognized the artistic value of the quilts and began to purchase them.
He saw them as more than useful household items. Their abstract designs mirrored the improvisational quality of jazz and deserved to be considered alongside the established canon of U.S. 20th century artists.
“I became convinced that there was an ‘invisible civilization’ in the black South that had produced the visual-arts equivalent of the great musical idioms: the blues, jazz, gospel and seminal rock ‘n’ roll,” said Arnett, who is based in Atlanta.
For the women, fame followed. The quilts were displayed to an enraptured public at art galleries in New York and Houston.
“People said: ‘There are these people against all odds who created things of timeless beauty,’” said Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
Quilting is part of the African American folk art tradition and there are many exponents aside from the women of Gee’s Bend. One prominent quilter, Nora Ezell, died in September.
In 2006, the U.S. government issued a series of stamps commemorating the quilts of Gee’s Bend.
Prices for the quilts soared into the thousands of dollars and, as money started to flow into Gee’s Bend, it looked as though the women were finally getting some of the financial compensation that they had lacked.
But if the story of women in old age getting the reward they deserved appeared too good to be true, perhaps it was.
Two of the women this year filed lawsuits in Alabama’s courts against Arnett, members of his family and one of his companies, Tinwood Ventures.
Annie Mae Young and Loretta Pettway claimed they had been cheated by the Arnetts out of proceeds from the sale of quilts and inadequately compensated for their intellectual property.
Pettway said she received no more than $19,000 from the sale of quilts and a little more for the stamps, even though her designs appeared on household goods such as duvet covers.
In a third suit, Lucinda Franklin sued for damages after lending two quilts to Matt Arnett, Bill’s son. She said he refused requests to return them, only doing so when the lawsuit was filed.
At issue was whether the Arnetts exploited the women using their knowledge of the art market and the commercial potential of the quilts.
“There was deliberate exploitation,” said Stephen Wallace, an attorney for the three women. “It stems from a sort of arrogance (that says): ‘How dare you question me? I brought these women to the forefront.’”
Arnett defended his role and said he had always acted with the consent of the Gee’s Bend quilters and in their interests.
“I risked nearly everything I have to advance the artistic cause of an impoverished ... black community ... against the tide of history and public opinion, and in the face of ridicule,” said Arnett in an e-mail.
“I was directly responsible for bringing their previously unheralded work to the attention ... of the wider world, both the art world and the general public, and I was committed to helping them in whatever ways I could,” he said.
One hot afternoon in the tiny town half a dozen women sat at the Gee’s Bend Collective making a quilt. The building acts as a center for the women and a point of sale for the work.
More than 130 children arrived in buses as part of a holiday club day-trip to learn about the quilts and listen to the women sing gospel songs, for which they have also become famous.
The court case has put a strain on the community but several women said relations with the Arnetts, who visit the village often, remained strong.
They said the lawsuit mattered little compared to the values that had strengthened them through years of hardship and underpinned the quilts they had made.
“Have a dream about what you want to be. Want your education. Put God first ... Stay out of trouble. Do what’s right,” Young told the children.