Photograph of the installation of three quilts (left to right): Mary Lee Bendolph (American, born 1935), Strings, 2003–2004, cotton corduroy, cotton, and cotton/ polyester blend, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase in memory of Shirley A. Woods, MMFA Assistant Director, 1979–2008, 2008.9.1, © Mary Lee Bendolph / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Emma Mae Hall Pettway (American, born 1932), Bars/Strips, ca. 1975, cotton corduroy, Lent by Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, © Emma Mae Hall, Photograph by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio / Art Resource, NY; Minnie Sue Coleman (American, 1926–2012), Pig in a Pen Medallion, ca. 1970, polyester, Lent by Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S Arnett Collection, © 2019 Estate of Minnie Sue Coleman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Photograph by Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio / Art Resource, NY
During the summer of 2019, the Museum celebrated the addition of five works by contemporary African American artists from Alabama to its permanent collection. They will be acquired over the next two years under terms of an agreement with the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation (SGDF). The pieces are a part of SGDF’s William S. Arnett Collection and include a major work by Thornton Dial, Sr.; an early work by Jimmy Lee Sudduth; and three quilts made by Gee’s Bend quiltmakers Minnie Sue Coleman, Emma Mae Hall Pettway, and Joanna Pettway.
Director Angie Dodson explained the significance of this acquisition: “Acquiring these works allows the Museum to better reflect the breadth of identities and lived experiences of the residents and visitors to the city and region.” She added, “We praise the Foundation for putting the proceeds from the sale of these works towards the creation of a paid internship program for students of color to gain experience in the museum field. We very much hope to host and nurture SGDF interns in the many years to come, to do our part in changing the face of our profession, to better reflect the communities with whom we work.”
The acquisition of these five objects is the realization of many years of thought and planning, beginning in 2015 when the Museum partnered with the SGDF on the exhibition History Refused to Die: The Enduring Legacy of the African American Art of Alabama—an exhibition and publication project the two institutions realized in conjunction with the Alabama Contemporary Arts Center in Mobile. During this collaboration, the Museum and SGDF discussed the importance of a commitment to eventually return some of this work to its origins, the place of its creation.
The Museum joins some 16 other prestigious art-collecting institutions in the United States in adding examples of art by these Alabamians to their collections representing American art of the 20th century. Not only relevant to us here in the state or region, these works have come to represent the many important themes that resonate in American history over the last century—those that relate to social changes represented by the Civil Rights Movement; the social shifts from the rural to the industrial and urban environment; and the economic shifts that increasingly came to divide America by race, class, and educational status. These works address these themes with innovation and ingenuity and deliver powerful messages about the America that we know today.
The works being acquired include a major mixed-media assemblage by Emelle native Thornton Dial, Sr. (1928–2016). In his work Lost Americans (2008), the artist recognized that American society in the 20th century was characterized by a tendency for violence as a result of deep cultural discord, leaving some of her citizens lost, disconnected, and left behind, failing to achieve the happiness and prosperity others took for granted. This damage to America’s traditional social contract has ramifications into the 21st century and beyond.
Artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth (1910–2007) lived and worked in Fayette in West Alabama. He was known for the use of a highly unusual medium he called “sweet mud.” Ferris Wheel at the Fairground (1988) reflects the artist’s earliest combinations of paint and clay in which the dried clay medium is applied with a light touch (almost as pastel) and produced a magical, almost surreal quality. This work expands the representation of subjects that the Museum has by Sudduth, in which he used a technique that was distinctive in its masterful application of the clay.
Finally, the Museum is adding three significant examples of work by members of the famed group of quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend in Wilcox County. A quilt-making cooperative known as the “Freedom Quilting Bee” was formed on March 26, 1966, by some 60 quiltmakers in Gee’s Bend under the leadership of Minder Coleman, a quilter and community leader, and an Episcopal priest, Father Francis X. Walter. The Bee brought tangible economic benefits (such as washing machines and upgrades to electrical service or plumbing) to the families of the Bend through the sale of communally made quilts. Today these works are valued as extraordinary examples of design adapted from traditional sources but expressing a distinctly bold and vibrantly colorful vision.
One of the quilts is by Minder Coleman’s daughter, Minnie Sue Coleman (1926–2012). Pig in a Pen Medallion (ca. 1970) was one of the quilts included in the series of U.S. Postal stamps issued in 2006 that honored the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend.
The other two quilts are by members of the Pettway family, often considered the leading family in the history of Gee’s Bend quilt making. Joanna Pettway (1924–1993) created one of the earliest examples of a quilt that is characterized by the classic elements of Gee’s Bend design—large rectangles of primarily solid color fabric in the housetop pattern—made around 1950. Emma Mae Hall Pettway (born 1932) made a rare double-sided quilt from corduroy scraps that were saved from the Bee after the sewing of pillow shams under contract for Sears, Roebuck, and Company in the mid-1970s.
The Museum is delighted to bring these works of art home to Alabama. Both for the sake of preserving Alabama’s rich cultural heritage, as well as for the sake of easing the artists’ and their descendants’ access to this art in the future, we welcome these objects into our collection and our galleries.