Necessary Artists: What the Quilters of Gee’s Bend Taught Me About Finance

At law school orientation, the Assistant Dean told us to “chop the wood in front of you.” When it seems like there is an entire forest to cut down, just concentrate on the first tree in front of you and don’t worry about the rest. I’m not exactly in favor of chopping down trees (although I love a free case of paper), but that phrase hits home for me in my most complicated and stressful times. I have invoked it countless times, particularly when tackling our debt.

Jessie T. Pettway Quilt

Quilt by Jessie T. Pettway

Much like the woodpile that grows from singular focus on the most important wood in front of us, the women of Gee’s Bend created art out of necessity. They stitched together rags from worn clothes, one by one, and created beautiful quilts.

If you look at the pieces of the quilts before they were stitched together, you would probably think that they’re nothing special. You may even have thrown out rags like those recently. You may have rags like those in your closets and not know what to do with them. But when you need to cover the holes in your couch or keep your family warm at night, or sop up the oil dripping from underneath your car, and your finances are a zero sum game, you find a way to make do with anything.

Annie Mae Young Quilt

Quilt by Annie Mae Young

The two pieces below are two of my favorites (although I have about a dozen “favorites”). These in particular, however, show the worn-out knees on the jeans that comprise them. Those knees worked hard before they became a quilt. Yet, smack dab in the middle is a blazing sun of warmth that those old knees can provide even in their old age.

Anne May Young QUIlt 1974

Quilt by Anne May Young, 1974. It was covering up a pile of wood when discovered by an art collector.

You can see that these quilts had former lives as jeans or aprons or dresses or even previous quilts. They have stains that will never come out, no matter how hard you scrub. And the women of Gee’s Bend made quilts with pops of color or, like the one below, explorations of one or two colors. This is art at its most pragmatic.

Rachel Carey George Quilt

Quilt by Rachel Carey George

Forgive me for waxing artful on this pragmatic blog. I was just recently reminded that, as long as we chop the wood in front of us and keep pushing ahead, eventually we’ll able to step back from it all and see the legacy that our hard work created. I’m not just talking about financial freedom. I’m talking about the knowledge that comes from cutting your expenses to the quick. The stripping away of the materialistic static. The reminders that the most beautiful things in life — love, friendship, art, nature, laughter, joy, all that good stuff — are free.

Photos from Smithsonian Magazine: Fabric of Their Lives.

8 thoughts on “Necessary Artists: What the Quilters of Gee’s Bend Taught Me About Finance

    • Thanks for inspiring me to write in my own voice, even if it doesn’t include tips for cutting this or making that.

    • It’s amazing the things we can do if we just take one step at a time! (although I could never run a marathon — that’s awesome!)

  1. My Grandma was a quilter, and I remember the scraps of nothing that she could make into an amazing quilt. I love quilts to this day and have a few stashed away that have been passed down. I love the idea of looking at the little steps instead of the often overwhelming big picture.

  2. Pingback: What the Quilters of Gee’s Bend Taught Me About Finance | Rockstar Finance

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