Teaching Traditions with Thread at Gee’s Bend Quilting Retreat

A little over two months ago, I attended a soul-refreshing retreat in the heart of Mississippi’s delta. A sewing sanctuary in a sense…where self-care & sisterhood soothed spirits seamlessly over story quilts.

Something that my Momma & I had talked about taking part in for years. After having learned about the gifted women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, back in the early 2000’s.

We, like many, wanted to learn something that was an essential way of life for our ancestors. A means for providing shelter, and keeping the cold out by insulating ceilings, drafty windows and walls. Has since been reenvisioned as Art!

I mean, high art that now hangs in the Smithsonian and other notable museums around the globe.

In relation to the women of Gee’s Bend. These are but of few of the articles that have captured my attention over the years:

NPR’s 2003 audio file

Aphrodite's Delights' Facebook Feature - Sophisticated SolWorks©
Aphrodite’s Delights’ Facebook Feature – J.R. Trotter Photography©

Click here to for an engrossing, short documentary from the New York Times Op-Docs.

…and serendipitously, last spring on April 25, I received this electronic invitation:

Gray Center invites you to join us for a quilting retreat with China Pettway and Mary Ann Pettway of the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective. China and Mary Ann will share their unique quilting styles as participants explore the work of their hands and the spirituality of quilting.

After flying across the country (from my home in the Pacific Northwest) into Arkansas, just days prior. I left my family’s farm mid-morning due to choosing to drive across the state line into Mississippi, for what was to be a short – three-hour road trip. Thusly, allowing me to sightsee and settle into the south along the way. And, as I approached my destination, I was ushered down a long lane of trees. Which provided a lush canopy of emerald & sage green, burnt orange, cardamom yellow, and rusty red leaves – leading me towards the 700+ acre camp ground of the Gray Center’s sprawling sanctuary. This divine hideaway is where I found myself staying for the next five days.

Not only was it the perfect setting for a landscape photographer like myself. It was set so deep in the woods, that not a sound could be heard. Just the balmy breezes of late autumn flowing across your face could be felt, whilst stunning skies sparkling with stardust and sultry southern sunsets danced across your eyes.

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During my time there, I found myself conjuring my Momma’s & Great Grandmother’s skills. As they were some of the best southern seamstresses. All the while being soothed by my new found love of sewing. So much so, that I found myself in the temple from sunrise to sunset…because I’ve lived a thousand lives, and I’m actually 95 on the inside.

Amazingly so, my late Mother made all of her garments when she was younger. Simply stylish outfits that were stitched together on a sewing machine that had been passed down to her from our elderly neighbor in Selma. She even sewed all of my big brothers clothes when he was little. And, some of my fondest moments where laying near her feet – under the sewing table, listening to the rhythmic sound of the peddle as she’d create handmade fashions. Additionally, my Great Grandmother was a quilter, and I’m fortunate to have some of her quilts in my collection. This was a form of ‘artwork’ that many of the women in my family on the Tucker Farm committed themselves to out of necessity.

This, is what fed my inspiration for being there…

Sewing from Sunrise... - Sophisticated SolWorks©
Sewing from Sunrise… – J.R. Trotter Photography©
...to Sunset - Sophisticated SolWorks©
…to Sunset – J.R. Trotter Photography©

Taking time to toot my own trumpet…🎺

📷Eileen Drennen💜

Before attending this restorative retreat, I’d only sewn a button onto a garment – perhaps twice over the years. Let alone the fact, that I’d never used a sewing machine in my life! Oh, and don’t get me going on my limited mathematical abilities…though, I can balance a checkbook and audit accounting records like a pro.

That expressed, by the end of the first day, I was threading needles and delicately placing my bare foot on the pedal of a Baby Lock USA like it was second nature.

The piece pictured above, was inspired by the vibrant range of purples from the lavender, honeysuckle, and hydrangea flowers that I chose for my Momma’s memorial services after her passing, last spring.

And, astonishingly, after trying to devise what I was going to create next; which took me half of the second day. I completed this seasonly inspired piece by the end of that evening, with the affectionate aid of Ms. Carol. Who kept me company, guided my hands, and graciously shared phenomenal fabrics from her personal collection.

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📷J.R. Trotter Photography©

I mean, it still blows my mind…and, the fact that I was affectionately assisted by some of the kindest, sweetest, funniest, loving, intelligent, and inspirational women – continues to warm my heart.

My goodness, the ladies (and Sam) at Gee’s Bend Quilting Retreats (hosted at the Gray Center), replenished & restored my sense of sisterhood in ways that will stay with me for the rest of my days. 💝

The Temple - Sophisticated SolWorks©
The Temple – J.R. Trotter Photography©
Ms. Flavia's Helping Hands, November 2019 Sophisticated SolWorks©
Ms. Flavia’s Helping Hands, November 2019 J.R. Trotter Photography©
Ms. Sandra & Ms. Anes from Arkansas. – J.R. Trotter Photography©
Gathered together at Gee's Bend. - Sophisticated SolWorks©
Gathered together at Gee’s Bend Retreat. – J.R. Trotter Photography©
Sam hand stitching his 1st quilt. - Sophisticated SolWorks©
Sam hand stitching his 1st quilt. – J.R. Trotter Photography©
Ms. Sandra & Ms. Anes proudly displaying Ms. Sandra's stunning story quilt. - Sophisticated SolWorks©
Ms. Sandra & Ms. Anes proudly displaying Ms. Sandra’s stunning story quilt. – J.R. Trotter Photography©
Ms. Flavia showing me how to sew. - Sophisticated SolWorks©
Ms. Flavia showing me how to sew. – J.R. Trotter Photography©

Additionally, the meals were prepared by Executive Chef Justin Moore, and each dish was truly palate pleasing.

Justin, and his staff, presented us with a nourishing breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. And even prepared to-go boxes for us on our last day in attendance.

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Each plate presented us with deliciously sourced, fresh foods from farmers scattered in and around Cantons’ agriculturally rich region…

From micro greens to home-made bread, I was extremely well fed. Even the table settings were simply divine and inspirationally arranged.

Below are but a few of my beloved souvenirs from my time at the retreat…

I’m still tickled that I just so happened to pick out this program amongst those on the sign-in table upon entering. Finding out later, that it was a digital copy of Mary Ann Pettway’s masterfully creative craftsmanship, entitled: The Robot in the White House.

So, in a sense, I have a piece of her astonishing artwork in my possession.

The Robot in the White House, by Mary Ann Pettway
The Robot in the White House by Mary Ann Pettway

In addition, I purchased these handmade items that were on display during the retreat. My goal is to frame this divinely crafted quilt square, and display it in my kitchen amongst the collection of tea cups & pots from my various travels around the world. Given that I’m a connoisseur of organically grown loose leaf teas. And in my opinion, there’s no better way to start ones’ day, than by sipping on a cup of leaves.🍵

Sewing Souvenirs Sophisticated SolWorks©
Sewing Souvenirs J.R. Trotter Photography©
Sewing Souvenirs Sophisticated SolWorks©
Sewing Souvenirs J.R. Trotter Photography©

Furthermore, Ms. Flavia, benevolently gifted me – my first ever pin-cushion pillow for storing pins & needles. Even the contents she neatly packed inside serve a purpose, by sharpening the needles overtime. How ingenious is that…

Sewing Souvenirs Sophisticated SolWorks©
Sewing Souvenirs J.R. Trotter Photography©
An assortment of inspiration from the retreat...and a magazine that arrived shortly there after from Arkansas. - Sophisticated SolWorks©
An assortment of inspiration from the retreat…and a magazine that arrived shortly there after from Arkansas. – J.R. Trotter Photography©
Arkansas Living Magazine - My late Grandfather's Subscription - Sophisticated SolWorks©
Arkansas Living Magazine – My late Grandfather’s Subscription – J.R. Trotter Photography©

Gee's Bend Quilting Retreat Program
Gee’s Bend Quilting Retreat Program

Till this day, I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to attend such a rewarding & refreshing retreat. Everything was exceptional…from the food, cottages, views, songs, camaraderie, and best of all, being taught traditional techniques by China & Mary Ann Pettway of Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective.

This was the exact form of self-care that I needed, and I’m so looking forward to returning – year after year!!

🧵Featured Image ~ Ms. Flavia’s Helping Hands, November 2019 J.R. Trotter Photography©

“se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki.” ~ SANKOFA
“it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot”


For her…

✨My Momma ~ Merry F. Trotter
✨My Momma ~ Merry F. Trotter

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