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Gees Bend quilter Annie Mae Young with her quilt during a media preview of the exhibit “Quilts of Gees Bend at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
AP photo by Chitose Suzuki
Gees Bend quilter Annie Mae Young with her quilt during a media preview of the exhibit “Quilts of Gees Bend at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Gees Bend quilter sues for share of quilts' profits

MONTGOMERY(AP) — One of the elderly women from Gee's Bend whose hand-woven quilts have been acclaimed by the art world and honored on U.S. postage stamps has filed suit claiming they were cheated financially by the Atlanta family that made them famous and corporations using their designs.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Selma by quilter Annie Mae Young, includes as defendants William Arnett, an Atlanta art scholar who brought Gee's Bend quilters to a wide audience, his sons Matt Arnett and Paul Arnett and Tinwood Ventures of Atlanta.

In recent years, the quilts have been displayed in prestigious museums and were chosen for the U.S. Postal Service's American Treasures stamp series.

Their designs also have been produced on rugs that sell for $5,000 each, Visa gift cards and a line of bedsheets by supermodel Kathy Ireland.

"They haven't gotten anything out of it," Young's attorney, Bill Dawson of Birmingham, said Tuesday.

He filed the lawsuit last week seeking a share of profits from the quilts for Young. The lawsuit currently names only Young, but Dawson said it may be expanded to include other quilters in the remote Gee's Bend community, about 60 miles southwest of Montgomery.

In addition to the Arnetts and Tinwood, the lawsuit names Kathy Ireland Worldwide, Shaw Living and Visa as defendants.

The lawsuit says any agreement between the quilters and the defendants was oral and was not put into writing.

A response filed by attorneys for the Arnetts and Tinwood denies the allegations and says the lawsuit was filed to "harass" and extort money from the defendants.

An an attempt to reach an attorney for Tinwood, Greg Hawley, for comment was not immediately successful. He earlier told the Press-Register, which first reported the lawsuit Tuesday, that Young and other quilters have received "dividends" from the quilters' collective that was organized by the Arnetts.

"Before the Arnetts were involved, the Gee's Bend quilts were a local craft. Now it is an honored, valued treasure that people all across the country know about," Hawley said.

Earlier this year, several of the quilters told The Associated Press in an interview at the senior citizens center where they make the quilts that they were disappointed that the publicity for the quilts had not translated into money to help the isolated, impoverished community.

"We need something else here. We need stores, we need our roads fixed, we need day care, we need a washeteria," quilter Nancy Brown said at the time.

Not all quilters are unhappy. The Press-Register quoted quilter Mary Ann Pettway as saying "I feel I've gotten a fair deal." She told the newspaper that other quilters feel the same way.

The lawsuit calls the actions of the defendants "an extensive fraud" and says the defendants have falsely represented the proceeds from enterprises associated with the quilts. The lawsuit claims little money from the quilts has come back to Gee's Bend.

"While the defendants often proclaim the benefits of their efforts to the community, such has never been the case," the complaint said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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