"It's simple. We want to keep people safe. Everything that we can do, we're doing it."

For generations, the African American women of tiny Gee's Bend, Alabama, have been making some of the finest quilts in the country. Colorful, abstract, and highly coveted, these fabric works of art are in a league of their own. They've even been reproduced on official US postage stamps.

And now, like many other Americans who feel compelled to pivot their efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic, these legendary quilting artists are using their skills to make masks for their rural community.

The project started when two of Gee's Bend's most prolific quilters, Mary Margaret Pettway and Mary McCarthy, saw an article about medical professionals in a nearby city dealing with a shortage of face masks. The story just so happened to include a template for DIY face masks, so the ladies got to work on making them for their immunocompromised neighbors.

"I started making a few samples two or three weeks ago," Pettway told Artnet News. "I've been a sewer all my life, so switching from one thing to another is not hard."

Gee's Bend Masks
Credit: Kyle Pettway

Eventually, Pettway and McCarthy's were joined by a few more Gee's Bend quilters. All of them are now working to make 500 masks—enough for the whole town.

Their effort is being supported by Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a community partnership dedicated to promoting and preserving work made by Southern artists.

The work couldn't be more different the quilts they've had displayed in the world's finest art museums, but that doesn't matter. Pettway told Artnet News that once they meet their goal of supplying every person in the Gee's Bend, they'll move on to the next town.

"We'll start going up the road," she explained. "We'll go as far as we can. It's simple. We want to keep people safe. Everything that we can do, we're doing it."