Acclaimed quilter sues, saying she was cheated

Annie Mae Young
Quilter Annie Mae Young poses in front of one of her quilts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on May 31, 2005. Chitose Suzuki / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

An elderly woman whose hand-woven quilts have been acclaimed by the art world and honored on U.S. postage stamps claims in a lawsuit that she was cheated financially by her promoters and corporate clients.

Quilter Annie Mae Young, a producer of the distinctive Gee's Bend quilts, accuses William Arnett, an Atlanta art scholar who brought the quilts to a wide audience, of falsely representing the proceeds from enterprises associated with the quilts, according to the lawsuit.

Kathy Ireland Worldwide, Shaw Living and Visa also are named as defendants, as are two of Arnett's sons and Tinwood Ventures of Atlanta.

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.

Attorneys for the other three firms could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A clerk at U.S. District Court in Mobile, where the suit was filed, said the firms had not yet been served with the suit.

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.

Other quilters cited
The lawsuit, filed last week in federal court, seeks a share of the profits from the quilt enterprise for Young. The suit might be expanded to include other quilters in the remote Gee's Bend community, about 60 miles southwest of Montgomery, said Young's attorney, Bill Dawson.

"They haven't gotten anything out of it," Dawson said Tuesday when asked about the quilters' share of the extensive marketing of the Gee's Bend brand.

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

Tinwood attorney Greg Hawley told the Press-Register, which first reported the lawsuit, 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.

One quilter calls hers 'a fair deal'
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 complains that 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 lawsuit says.