Gees Bend Quilter Files Suit

By BEN RAINESNewhouse News ServicePublished on: 06/06/07

Mobile, Ala. — Images of her handmade quilts adorn postage stamps, Visa gift cards and $5,000 rugs, but Annie Mae Young and some of the other quilters who made Gee’s Bend famous say they missed out on what has turned into a giant payday.

Saying she has been cheated by several major corporations and a trio of scheming businessmen — Atlantan William Arnett and his sons — who relied on an oral contract that “violates the statute of frauds,” Young has filed suit in federal court in Selma, seeking a larger slice of the lucrative pie her art has generated since being shown in the nation’s most prestigious art museums, including the High Museum of Art in March, 2006.

An attorney representing Tinwood Ventures, one of the companies named in the lawsuit, said the quilters have been fairly compensated and have received national exposure thanks to his clients’ efforts.

According to the suit, filed Friday, Tinwood claims to own the intellectual property rights to the quilts produced in Gee’s Bend, and, in turn, the company has leased those rights to manufacturers, among them Kathy Ireland Worldwide Corp.

While several of the companies involved in marketing products based on Gee’s Bend quilts state in promotional literature that the quilters “receive a royalty” for every item sold, Young’s lawsuit says she has never received “one penny from these enterprises.”

In fact, Young said, she had no idea her quilt designs were being used for anything beyond a book, much less a line of rugs selling for $5,000 apiece. The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for “commercial misappropriation of her work and likeness.

Arnett is recognized as one of the vanguard collectors and champions of self-taught art. His “Souls Grown Deep” exhibition during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta is widely respected as a seminal moment for the field.

This is not the first time an artist with whom he has had a financial relationship has accused him of impropriety. Insinuations have dogged him at least since a 1993 “60 Minutes” episode that painted him — some say unfairly — as an exploiter of poor black artists.

Arnett could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Catherine Fox of the AJC contributed to this article.
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