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Video: While I Yet Live

Five acclaimed African American quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, talk about love, religion and the fight for civil rights as they continue the tradition of quilting that originally brought them together.

Essie Pettway, Mary Lee Bendolph, Rita Mae Pettway, Lucy Mingo, China Pettway, Mary Ann Pettway

Director: Maris Curran
Director of Photography: Jerry Henry

From The New York Times

Running time: 15 minutes

Email Subscribers may click on the title of this post to watch the film.

From the director:

Gee’s Bend is a rural community in lower Alabama that is widely recognized for its extraordinary quilts. The town, also known as Boykin, sits in a bend of the Alabama River and was settled by freed slaves. Supported by New Deal programs, Gee’s Bend led the region in black property ownership, and like Selma to the north, was instrumental in the fight for voting rights. The quilts of Gee’s Bend reflect a collective history and deep sense of place. And they register the bold individual voices of the women who made them.

I was invited to Gee’s Bend for the first time by a friend and collaborator, the Alabama-born artist and musician Lonnie Holley. I had made a short documentary about Lonnie and his artistic process, and he introduced me to two of the community’s acclaimed quilters, Mary Lee Bendolph and her daughter Essie Pettway.

The tradition of quilting in the region is passed from mother to daughter and predates the formation of the community itself. Mary Lee taught Essie and she was taught by her mother, Aolar Mosely. It is a practice that in years past was collective, but now is more solitary. Most people here grew up watching their mothers, aunts or grandmothers quilt. It is a part of the fabric of a community.

I went to Gee’s Bend with a deep curiosity about the lives and inspirations of these extraordinary artists, whose works hang in museums around the country, including the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I came to listen. To hear what it has meant to raise children, care for parents, work full time, farm and take the time to dedicate to making something beautiful for themselves, their families and their community. When I spoke with the women in the film, they articulated the joys of their lives as well as the struggles, both systemic and individual. And above all else, Mary Lee Bendolph, Essie Pettway, China Pettway, Rita Mae Pettway and Lucy Mingo emphasized an overarching theme of love — familial love, love of God, and self-love. It is the last thing that Essie told me when we spoke recently: “People are not really expressing enough love anymore. It’s at the center of what we do.”

Maris Curran is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker whose work has shown at MoMA, TIFF and Berlinale, among other international film festivals.

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