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May 30, 2023

Anna Lucia and the Quilters of Gee’s Bend

As generative art collides with quilting, the artists discuss their masterpiece of co-creation with ARSNL
Credit: Anna Lucia, Generations (detail), 2023. Inspired by Essie Bendolph Pettway, League of Justice, 2020. Courtesy of Arsnl Art
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Anna Lucia and the Quilters of Gee’s Bend

The segregation of art from craft is an historical construct, and a gendered one at that. Anna Lucia’s 2021 project, Loom, was inspired by the work of female artists of the Bauhaus who were often relegated to weaving despite the wider march toward modernization. Her new work, Generations, brought her into contact with the master quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama — a creative community renowned for the geometry of its designs and the emergent properties of its physical process. 

After a months-long feedback loop between the artists, ARSNL promptly sold out its special sale of 500 single-edition digital artworks as well as a number of one-of-a-kind quilts. Following their triumph of generative geometry, Anna Lucia and Mary Margaret Pettway caught up with the co-founders of ARSNL to discuss the fine art of co-creation.

Generations launch party, Lume Studio, May 2023. Courtesy of Arsnl Art

Anna Lucia in conversation with Matthew Dunnerstick 

Matthew Dunnerstick: Anna Lucia, when was the first time you heard about the quilters of Gee’s Bend?

Anna Lucia: When I first saw images of quilts from Gee’s Bend a year and a half ago, I was immediately captivated by their vibrant colors, bold patterns, and expressive compositions.

I saw generative art in a completely different setting in that every quilt is unique, yet all share familiarity. 

Robert Hill, the co-producer on the project and an Alabama native, told me about them after learning about my project, Loom (2021). At the time, I didn’t know that I would end up diving so deep into the patterns of the quilts. 

Quilted physical NFT hanging from clothes line, Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 2023. Courtesy of Arsnl Art

MD: What was it like working with the quilters? Did anything surprise you? 

AL: You know, as artists get together, it is always striking how quickly the conversation turns to technique, especially among generative artists. The same was true as I listened to the quilters talking about different types of stitching, how colors are chosen, where fabrics are found, etc. What I found interesting was that although the quilts of Gee’s Bend share a recognizable style, each story and approach differed. 

MD: Are you a quilter yourself?

AL: I’m not a quilter but I do know my way around a sewing machine. My mother taught me how to sew when I was around ten years old, and I studied fashion design for a year before going into engineering. I will make a stab at quilting an output from Generations

Anna Lucia, Generations, 2023. Inspired by Louisiana P. Bendolph, Blocks-and-Strips Medallion. Courtesy of Arsnl Art

MD: Your Art Blocks project, Loom, was inspired by female textile artists of the Bauhaus. What is it about the art of textile production that interests you? 

AL: I’m not the only artist working with code who makes connections to textile art. Besides the historical link between the earliest automated looms and the first computers, there seems to be an intuitive connection between the two media. Earlier computer artists like Charlotte Johannesson and Peter Struycken made pixelated tapestries, while current colleagues like Andreas Rau and Kristen Roos have also made the link between computer systems and textiles. 

What set me on my own path was reading about the female designers of the Bauhaus movement. Women studying at the school were often nudged into the weaving workshop because other crafts seemed inappropriate for women at the time. This struck a chord with me because, almost a century later, I could relate to their story. 

Teaching myself how to code was a way for me to challenge myself technically, while at work I was nudged into softer and more supportive roles. 
Original Gee’s Bend quilt next to the digital quilt generated from it. Courtesy of Arsnl Art

MD: How was the process of creating an algorithm for Generations different from Loom?  

AL: For Loom, the story of the Bauhaus weavers was the starting point, but their work and aesthetic didn’t feed much into the project. For Generations, there is a much more direct link to the original source material. In some outputs, the quilts that were their inspiration are very visible, while other outputs take new twists and turns.

MD: What can you tell us about the process you adopted for Generations? Where did you begin? At what point did the process become collaborative? 

AL: At the beginning, I read a lot about Gee’s Bend while having conversations with the quilters and examining the quilts intuitively. 

It became clear to me that transferring the quilts’ depth, warmth, and human touch to the digital realm would be impossible. I decided to embrace the limits of code and the computer screen and focus on the emergence of patterns and color allocation. 

Subdividing a grid into rectangles is common to generative art, so that’s where I started with the algorithm. The question was how to manipulate such classic functions to recreate the patterns of the quilts. Starting from the Housetop pattern, it was so exciting when the first outputs emerged that actually resembled a Housetop. The cool thing about working with code is that once the basic system is there, you can play with mixing patterns and palettes. Trying out a wide range of variables in the functions also allows one to create new compositions and collaborations with the quilters.

Generations on billboard in Los Angeles, in partnership with Vellum LA and StandardVision. Courtesy of Arsnl Art

Essie, Loretta, Louisiana, and Mary Margaret (Lucy’s daughter) curated the final artworks and it was fascinating to see their final choices. Sometimes, they chose exactly what I would have picked, while other times they went for something completely different. I then curated some of those outputs once again into sets, which we offer with the collection. Information about who chose each quilt and which artist inspired the pattern and the palette is included as part of the metadata of the NFT.

MD: How do you reconcile the tactility of analog craft with your own natively digital practice?

AL: I’m not sure there is anything to reconcile. For me, they are not in opposition. 

MD: Was it important to you that there was a physical component to the project? What did it feel like to see your works quilted for the first time?

AL: From the start, the question was whether the digital works might inform the physical too. Honestly, when I first saw the quilt made by Mary Margeret I couldn’t believe it. I had to go back to the digital work and examine them side by side to appreciate that it had indeed happened. NFT collectors can have their output quilted, but in the rights of the NFT we’ve also included a right to quilt, encouraging holders to get creative themselves. I can’t wait to see what emerges from this. 

Anna Lucia, Generations, 2023. Inspired by Essie Bendolph Pettway, Multiple Columns Of Rectangular Blocks and Bars. Courtesy of Arsnl Art

MD: How do you handle imperfections or artifacts that emerge in the process of creating digital quilts?

AL: I love how Mary Margaret describes her process of making a quilt, that “sometimes you want to make one thing, but another idea might cross your mind.” I might try to fix one thing, but something unexpected happens that is actually kind of interesting. 

Creating a generative algorithm for me is always about finding the space for emergence to take place. 

Knowing that the work would be curated was also very liberating in that sense as it opened up space knowing that the final artworks would be handpicked. 

MD: What did you learn by working with the quilters? Has the experience altered your approach to generative art?

AL: I learned that you shouldn’t wait for the perfect circumstances to arrive before making work — use what is available to you. 

Mary Margaret, quilter of Gee’s Bend, posing next to Gee’s Bend quilt. Courtesy of Arsnl Art

Mary Margaret Pettway in conversation with Katarina Feder

Katarina Feder: Mary Margaret, you were born into a quilting community that is in many ways a dynasty. Does the younger generation, that of your children, continue to quilt? Will the tradition live on?

Mary Margaret Pettway: I would love for this tradition to live on and, yes, my children do quilt. As a matter of fact, my daughter does not like it but she does know how to do it. I taught my son also — he did a little quilting on one of the quilts I sent you. A lot of the younger generation are billing themselves a little bit higher than I think they should, because some of them are missing the basics. And by saying that, I’m saying they’re not hand stitching the top but using a sewing machine instead, then they learn how to hand quilt, which is fine. But my children know both ways.

KF: Gee’s bend in Wilcox County is a small town of around 500 people. How has international fame affected your community?

MMP: It’s still pretty much the same nice little community. I mean, we love that notoriety, don’t get us wrong, but we are pretty much the same people as we were before — we’re still at our houses doing what we do, still hand quilting and sewing.
Anna Lucia, Generations, 2023. Inspired by Loretta Pettway, Blocks and Strips. Courtesy of Arsnl Art

KF: Can you tell me about the process of conceiving a quilt? Do you adapt the project as you go or do you have a clear vision before you start?

MMP: Well, it actually depends. Sometimes you’ll start out wanting to make one thing and another idea may cross your mind. Sometimes you mix it up a little bit and sometimes you get a little confused. I try to envision it in my mind and then go with the colors I want to make it with. But even after I get the colors I want, I may lay them down somewhere for a little while and then go back and switch them up a little bit. Sometimes I sketch them out in advance and color them in with colored pencils.

KF: Well, that actually leads me to the next question. Have you ever worked in another artistic medium, painting for instance? 

MMP: I actually used to do pottery, which I like. I just don’t like the mud factor, you know, but I like the pottery and I do like fusing glass.

KF: You quilted one of Anna Lucia’s outputs, which has actually just sold. What made you choose that particular work and how would you describe the experience of responding to a digital object?

MMP: I love the idea of her working digitally and some of her works are mind-boggling. They’re also pretty, you know.
Anna Lucia, Generation #436 (2023) with attributes. Courtesy of Arsnl Art

KF: Do you think it would be possible to quilt all of Anna Lucia’s outputs? Logistically speaking, are they all adaptable to quilting?

MMP: It would take years to quilt some of her outputs. But others wouldn’t be possible unless I could find a way to lighten certain parts and darken others.

KF: What has it been like to collaborate with Anna Lucia, and has it been different to your past collaborations? 

MMP: I like her process. She’s certainly special. I’m not going to say she’s the boss, but as a boss she’s good as she doesn’t micromanage.

KF: From your experience working on Generations? What are some of the differences between physical and digital craft that you might have noticed? What happens when you combine the two together?

MMP: I think you get a spectacular outcome. But Anna Lucia is a master at what she does and I like to think I’m a master at what I do. 
Anna Lucia, Generations, 2023. Inspired by Essie Bendolph Pettway, League of Justice. Courtesy of Arnsl Art

KF: What are your final reflections on the project? Are NFTs a useful solution for textile production and distribution from your perspective?

MMP: They can be because, after a while, some quilts do wear out. With others you can see remnants of what they should have been. But the digital one should always be there, you know?

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Anna Lucia is a self-taught artist and engineer currently based in Cairo. She writes algorithms to generate artworks, often combining mathematics and computer science concepts with feminine crafts such as textile work. She explores new ways of presenting artworks to audiences through interaction, VR, endless animations, and the screen as a medium. Her work has been exhibited globally, including at Art Basel Miami Beach, Vellum LA, and the Decentral Art Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, among others.

Mary Margaret Pettway is a fourth-generation quilter who was born and raised in Gee’s Bend (Boykin), Alabama. She is the daughter of  Lucy T. Pettway and a member of the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective, founded in 2003 to promote and market quilts from the community of Gee’s Bend. She has taught quilting workshops throughout the Southeast and is a regular instructor at Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center in Camden, Alabama. In 2018 she was named an Alabama Humanities Fellow by the Alabama Humanities Foundation. She currently serves as the Board Chair for Souls Grown Deep Foundation.

Matthew Dunnerstick is co-founder and CMO of ARSNL. He is an entrepreneur and artist who fuses art, tech, finance, and marketing into one practice. After working in financial technology at American Funds, he spent the next 15 years building his digital marketing agency for entertainment studios such as Paramount and Universal, and museums including the Getty and LACMA. 

Katarina Feder is co-founder and CEO of ARSNL, a digital studio and marketplace born out of Artists Rights Society’s 35-year legacy. For the last five years, Feder has been Director of Business Development at Artists Rights Society. She maintains a monthly advice column on Artnet, “Know Your Rights,” where she answers questions on matters of intellectual property and more!