- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

‘I was praying for this day back when I was working in the cotton fields,” said Loretta Pettaway, one of the four black patchwork quilting artists from Gee’s Bend, Ala., honored at the annual dinner of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE).

Mrs. Pettaway and her colleagues, Louisiana Bendolph, Mary Lee Bendolph and Loretta Bennett, were recognized as the newest members of a pantheon of American artists who have contributed their work for display in U.S. embassies, consulates and ambassadorial residences abroad.

Prints of their quilts, created between 1940 and 2001 and remarkable both for the bold patterns and the humble materials (flour sacks, old flannel work clothes, worn denim) with which they were assembled, are to join works by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and other art world greats.

“They [FAPE] already have the ‘kings,’ ” now they need a queen, and I’ll be one,” Mary Lee Bendolph said with a laugh as she hugged one of the organization’s bejeweled grandes dames in the august shadow of Founding Father portraits in the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Room Thursday night.

An incongruous scene, but joyous to be sure — and one that was repeated throughout an evening that featured not only fine wine and food and a speech about the importance of U.S. cultural diplomacy by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, but a moving a cappella gospel concert by five of the artists’ hometown friends as well .

“We’re so proud to have their work and to have them here,” said Ann Johnson, director of the State Department’s Art in Embassies program. “They have brought something to Washington that we need to promote and expose to greater audiences throughout the world.”

With major museum exhibitions, a coffee table book and a set of U.S. commemorative stamps to their credit, the quilting ladies of Gee’s Bend are hardly likely to fade from the scene anytime soon, especially now that their work is commanding top dollar on the art market. Matthew Arnett, a documentary filmmaker whose father William Arnett was an early and major collector, reported that quilts that sold for $25 a decade ago now command up to $25,000 apiece.

Mrs. Pettaway was happy to affirm the Lord’s bounty.

“We are both happy and blessed,” she said.

— Kevin Chaffee

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