The ladies of Gee’s Bend work on a quilt.  (Photo courtesy Deb Sciranka and the New Hazlett Theater)

A recent quilt exhibit at the New Hazlett Theater took four years to put together. While this may seem like a surprising amount of time, it makes sense with a closer look at the people — and the relationships — that were forged behind the scenes.

It all began with a quilt guild formed in the small community of Gee’s Bend, Ala. Since the 19th century, the women of this area have met to practice the traditional art of quilt making, passing the skills down through generations of families.

Originally the ladies created the quilts out of necessity, using whatever scraps were lying around in order to keep families warm. Today the quilts are recognized across the country for their exciting colors and unexpected construction.

The most recent generation of Gee’s Bend quilters has formed a unique relationship with one of the Northside’s own quilting organizations. The Nia Quilt Guild is a program within the Young Men and Women’s African Heritage Association, based in the central Northside area.

For the past four years, the Nia Quilt Guild and the ladies of Gee’s Bend have spent the month of July together in Alabama, where they quilt, discuss and bond in a unique collaborative atmosphere. According to a press release, the Nia Quilt Guild members are the first group of quilters to travel to the homes of the artists and participate in this type of project.

“We was able to prepare a meal and sit and work together,” said Ruth Kennedy, one of the quilters from Gee’s Bend. “They were real nice, and interested in learning.”

At the quilt exhibit, visitors found handcrafted quilts decorating the entryway, darkened theater and even the halls in bright and intricately crafted blazes of color. Some quilts were created by members of the Nia Quilt Guild, and others by the women of Gee’s Bend.

The exhibit ran from Oct. 6 to Oct. 17, and was accompanied by a series of special events throughout the city. These included community workshops and conversation, a show at the Children’s Museum, the creation of a quilt for the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and a reading by children’s author Elizabeth Howard, to name a few.

“We tried to share [the ladies] with the larger community,” said Janice Parks, executive director of the Young Men and Women’s African Heritage Association and also a participant in the visits to Alabama.

The quilts of Gee’s Bend have been displayed across the country in multiple museums, including in New York City and Houston, according to the organization’s website.

The ladies are also the subject of a documentary film and two books, and have been featured in an extensive list of print publications, radio broadcasts and news shows.

When the exhibit wrapped up on the evening of Oct. 17, Parks seemed pleased with the direction the 12 days of events went.

 “It’s an amazing thing when an organization this small pulls off something this large,” she said.

Parks is already looking forward to her yearly return to Alabama. July 2011 will mark the fifth reunion of the Nia Quilt Guild and the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective.

For more information about the Gee’s Bend women and their quilts, visit www.quiltsofgeesbend.com. For more information on the Young Men and Women’s African Heritage Association, visit http://ymwaha.org.