At every stop on its exhibition tour, "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" has captured hearts and minds. The struggle for Gee's Bend's soul is just beginning.

Seventy dynamic quilts stitched by black women in the remote Alabama community are on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Made between 1930 and 2000, they have been hailed as examples of the finest American modern art. Their abstract geometries and bold, syncopated colors have been likened to paintings by Matisse and Klee. But the flip side of any successful art show is commercial lust. Like Monet waterlilies and van Gogh sunflowers, the patches of worn denim that have become Gee's Bend's signature have already begun to multiply.

Quilt-patterned ties, scarves, coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets have followed the exhibition on its rounds of major museums. In December, the first licensed copy of a Gee's Bend quilt -- an Asian import -- went on sale for $298 at Anthropologie, with more to follow. This month, at a four-day trunk show in the Corcoran Atrium, Barbara Barran of Classic Rug Collection showed off a spectacular licensed collection of rugs, which replicate 23 quilts down to faded colors and simulated stains and frays. Corcoran visitors bought four of the most luxurious versions in silk, wool and hand-knotted hemp, which cost several thousand dollars each. Gallery-goers also took home 60 cotton flat-weave rugs, which Barran has been allowed to market in limited quantities at museums, for about $99 a piece.

Next, Gee's Bend motifs will be reproduced as inexpensive wall art and pet-proof rugs. Those products are to be the first offerings in the most expansive deal yet, a partnership between Tinwood Ventures, the marketing arm of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Tinwood Alliance, which owns the quilts, and Kathy Ireland Worldwide, a lifestyle empire founded by the former supermodel and Southern California celebrity mom.

Ireland, who is still remembered as a flaxen-haired three-time cover girl for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, makes an unlikely standard bearer for grandmotherly quilt makers descended from slaves. But her 10-year-old enterprise chalked up more than $1 billion in retail sales last year selling furnishings and apparel through outlets such as Costco and KMart, Marlo and Hechts, and as far away as Saudi Arabia.

Ireland is not unaware of the risks of transferring museum-certified art to budget-priced furnishings for every room in the house. She says there will be no toilet seats, shower curtains or mouse pads on her watch. She does envision Gee's Bend designs on painted furniture and fashion sweaters.

"There is not anything I desire to do unless it's going to lift up these women and make their art visible," she says. "It can't be cheapened. It's got to be tasteful. I want the artist to recognize her art when she sees it."

A feature of all contracts guarantees that Gee's Bend quilters -- dozens of whom will participate in the Corcoran's family day activities today and a brunch with gospel singing tomorrow -- will reap benefits, though how much is unclear. Tinwood's founder, Bill Arnett, says $1 million has already gone back to Gee's Bend. A 2003 annual report sets a goal of $1 million more over the next five years to build a community center. That makes the prospect of Gee's Bend mania easier to love.

As much as the aesthetics, it's the Gee's Bend back story that resonates: Rural black Americans, still emerging from slavery, survive the Great Depression, benefit from the New Deal and pursue civil rights, while watching the countryside collapse and post-industrial prosperity pass them by. Women living in log cabins, with newsprint for wallpaper, had to turn rags into bedcovers to keep loved ones from freezing. In the 1930s, shelters in Gee's Bend were so inadequate that New Dealers declared an emergency and constructed model housing. The harsh life had an impact on the quilters' art. Between work in the fields and caring for children, a woman had little time and less energy. Large swatches of fabric could be combined more quickly than small ones, especially if stitches didn't have to conform to an outsider's notion of perfection. Free-form patterns emerged as self-expression. Over the years, the works of art piled up on beds and over floorboards or wherever warmth and a spot of color were welcome.

Arnett saw his first quilt in a photograph in the 1990s, a striking blue denim one by Annie Mae Young. An outspoken Atlanta art collector and book publisher, Arnett was already a passionate promoter of Southern black art. He raced to Gee's Bend -- "at the end of a dead-end road to nowhere" -- to find the quilt.

Arnett knocked on doors, looked under mattresses and paid as little as $40 apiece for all he could find. At the time, he points out, there was no market for the quilts. He has since amassed an estimated 700. To counter any suggestion of exploitation, he ceded them to the nonprofit Alliance, which remains the primary entry point for the outside world. Arnett, who accompanied a busload of quilters on a visit to Washington this week, remains the artists' most dedicated champion.

Until now, advocacy for Southern black artists has not been a moneymaking proposition. Before the Gee's Bend show drew rave reviews, Arnett says he racked up losses of about $12 million trying to create exhibits and publish the work of regional talents. (He calls Gee's Bend "the tip of the iceberg.") A financial infusion from Jane Fonda kept publishing projects afloat. (Fonda's daughter, Vanessa Vadim, and Arnett's son Matt produced the documentary on view at the Corcoran.) The tide turned after the Houston Museum of Fine Arts leapt at the chance to organize the quilt show.

Tinwood's new business acumen is attributed to Arnett's son Harrison, who acquired an MBA and set out to turn art into a sustainable, and socially responsible, business. A third son, Paul, editor of Tinwood Books, is an art historian.

"We realized the Gee's Bend aesthetic was going to have an impact in a variety of areas, primarily fashion and home," Harrison Arnett says. But there was no guarantee that the aesthetic would be "credited to the source."

The senior Arnett had to be persuaded about the marketing project. "I despise reproductions," he admits. "I have spent my life collecting originals. If I ever bought a reproduction, I got fooled."

But he decided there "wasn't any moral injustice being committed, no conscience or soul or spirits of Gee's Bend being compromised" because the women are getting money from the efforts of manufacturers like Anthropologie, Barran and, soon, Ireland. He is also sure some disreputable dealer will take a reproduction quilt and "bury it, dirty it up and take off the label that says it's a copy" and pass it off as an authentic work of Gee's Bend art.

Given the effort Anthropologie has put into the first quilt, only 600 to 1,000 of which will be made, the concern may be justified. Spokeswoman Sara Goodstein says the company has been respectful "down to the last wrinkle. We wouldn't have done it any other way." A keepsake brochure takes pains to explain the Gee's Bend story, and identify the quilter, Lola Pettway.

In Gee's Bend, quilts are again being made at a revived Gee's Bend Quilters Collective ( New quilts cost $500 to $15,000, according to Harrison Arnett. No one asked the artists of Gee's Bend to mass-produce copies for Anthropologie.

"We always want to allow the artist to be a creator, not a commodity," Harrison Arnett says.

Efforts have been made before to turn Gee's Bend into a retail phenomenon. In the 1960s and '70s, the women set up a Freedom Quilting Bee and briefly made quilts for Bloomingdale's. The women also sewed commercially for Sears. As with most home design trends, consumer interest waned.

The first wave of Ireland's collection will not be ready for 18 months. "We're not rushing," she says. "We're taking our time to make sure this is correct. The sky's the limit on what you could do. But we've never come from that place -- a place of greed -- and we believe that has served us well."

Asked how the Gee's Bend story will fit into her oft-stated mission of "providing solutions for busy moms," Ireland responded: "To be able to bring art into your home -- to bring that history, that culture, that beauty into your home -- that's a wonderful solution."

Arlonzia Pettway, a Gee's Bend quilter extraordinaire, is old enough to see the big picture. On a recent visit to Washington, she recalled stitching standard quilt patterns like stars and wedding rings until she learned to streamline her own style. She quilted for Bloomingdale's and Sears, and still grumps that the stitching was criticized. Now those imperfections are valued as artistic license. In the old days, she also remembers not getting paid promptly. Now that picture is brighter. And whatever the licensing agreements produce, she feels the quilter's place is secure.

"They can't compete," Pettway said. "No way. Things have gone too far. We have the name. They can't take our name. "

A wool rug based on Alabama quilter Jesse T. Pettway's barred design sells for $4,600."Medallian," by Loretta Pettway, is among of the designs by Gee's Bend, Ala., quilters being reproduced for sale by Classic Rug Collection. Gee's Bend designs will also be used in a variety of products by the Kathy Ireland Worldwide emporium.