Skip to Main Content
    View of the top of the East Building tower, with green trees on each side

    Members’ Reports

    Lisa Gail Collins
    Center 42

    Lisa Gail Collins

    Love Lies Here: Grief, a Quilt, and the Community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama

    Imagine my delight upon reading the December 2020 press release announcing the National Gallery’s acquisition of 40 works of art from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, including a 1942 work-clothes quilt made by Missouri Pettway (1900–1981)! Made while newly experiencing the loss of her husband, Nathaniel—and pieced together from strips and blocks of his worn work clothes—Pettway’s wholly precious utility quilt is the focus of my current book project, “Love Lies Here.” At once a story of grief, a quilt, and a community, this creative, interdisciplinary study thinks intently and imaginatively on the quiltmaker’s cotton covering in relation to the history of the African American farming community of Gee’s Bend, its residents, and the essential work of mourning.

    Missouri Pettway, Blocks and Strips Work-Clothes Quilt, 1942, cotton, corduroy, and cotton sacking, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, 2020.28.15

    My previous encounters with the cloth covering were brief and long ago, at exhibitions at the Frist Art Museum (2012) and Whitney Museum of American Art (2003). While in residence at the National Gallery—and thanks to the wonderful intellectual and organizational generosity of Julia M. Burke, senior conservator and head of textile conservation—I was able to study Pettway’s gently geometric quilt in relation to the other eight quilts acquired by artists of Gee’s Bend, including a later one by her. Direct, sustained looking proved pivotal; it significantly strengthened my research and enabled fresh insights. To give one example, I had wrongly assumed the quilt comprised three layers: pieced quilt top, inner lining, and plain backing. Firsthand study revealed the quilt was unlined and instead consisted of two layers stitched together by hand with cream thread. This realization prompted me to restructure my book, as until then it had been organized around the steps I had assumed Pettway had taken in making her quilt, including lining it with local cotton. Other in-person investigations regarding the quilt’s materials, especially with respect to color, weight, and sheen, also overturned and/or sharpened my previous claims, aligning them more closely with the quilt’s truth.

    Missouri Pettway, “Path through the Woods” (Quiltmaker’s Name), 1971, polyester knit, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, 2020.28.16

    I arrived at the Center with a working draft of my book manuscript, “Love Lies Here: Grief, a Quilt, and the Community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama” (under contract with the University of Washington Press), as well as comments from two anonymous readers. While in residence, I fully revised the manuscript based on my direct study of the quilt and the constructive feedback of my reviewers and my Center colleagues. Inspired and energized by my productive time in residence, upon my return home I spent two more months preparing the manuscript and gathering supporting materials. In March 2022, I submitted the entire manuscript, thoroughly revised and significantly strengthened, to the University of Washington Press. I am deeply grateful for my time in Washington, DC. Firsthand study, uninterrupted time for research and writing, and rich and rewarding discussions and exchanges at the National Gallery enabled me to bring a long-loved book project to completion. 

    Vassar College
    Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, fall 2021

    After her residency at the Center, Lisa Gail Collins held the Peter P. and Margaret A. D’Angelo Chair in the Humanities at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, for spring 2022. In 2022–2023, she will return to Vassar College, where she is Professor of Art on the Sarah Gibson Blanding Chair, and she will begin a term as director of the American Studies Program.