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The radical quilting of Rosie Lee Tompkins
An image provided by Eli Leon, Rosie Lee Tompkins in 1985. In 1997, writer Roberta Smith happened on the first solo show anywhere of Rosie Lee Tompkins, an exemplar of one of the country’s premier visual traditions: African-American improvisational quilt-making — an especially innovative branch of a medium that reaches back to African textiles and continues to thrive. Eli Leon via The New York Times.

by Roberta Smith

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 1997, I walked into the Berkeley Art Museum to be greeted by a staggering sight: an array of some 20 quilts unlike any I had ever seen. Their unbridled colors, irregular shapes and nearly reckless range of textiles telegraphed a tremendous energy and the implacable ambition, and confidence, of great art.

They were crafted objects that transcended quilting, with the power of painting. This made them canon-busting, and implicitly subversive. They gave off a tangible heat. I left in a state of shock. I knew I had been instantly converted but I didn’t yet know to what.

In memory the California show became a jubilant fugue of small squares of velvet in deep gemstone hues, dancing with not much apparent order yet impeccably arranged for full effect. My first thought was of Paul Klee, that kind of love-at-first-sight allure, seductive handmadeness and unfiltered accessibility, only bigger and stronger.

The planets had aligned: I’d happened on the first solo show anywhere of Rosie Lee Tompkins, an exemplar of one of the country’s premier visual traditions: African American improvisational quiltmaking, an especially innovative branch of a medium that reaches back to African textiles and continues to thrive.

Tompkins’ work, I came to realize, was one of the century’s major artistic accomplishments, giving quiltmaking a radical new articulation and emotional urgency. I felt I had been given a new standard against which to measure contemporary art.

Rosie Lee Tompkins was a pseudonym, I would learn, adopted by a fiercely private, deeply religious woman, who as her work received more and more attention was almost never photographed or interviewed. She was born Effie Mae Martin in rural Gould, Arkansas, on Sept. 9, 1936. At the time of the show, she was 61 and living in Richmond, California, just north of Berkeley.

Over the years, I would be repeatedly blown away by work that was at once rigorous and inclusive. Tompkins was an inventive colorist whose generous use of black added to the gravity of her efforts. She worked in several styles and all kinds of fabrics, using velvets — printed, panne, crushed — to gorgeous effect, in ways that rivaled oil paint. But she was also adept with denim, faux furs, distressed T-shirts and fabrics printed with the faces of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Magic Johnson.

A typical Tompkins quilt had an original, irresistible aliveness. One of her narrative works was 14 feet across, the size of small billboard. It appropriated whole dish towels printed with folkloric scenes, parts of a feed sack and, most prominently, bright bold chunks of the American flag. What else? Bits of embroidery, Mexican textiles, fabrics printed with flamenco dancers and racing cars, hot pink batik and, front and center, a slightly cheesy manufactured tapestry of Jesus Christ. It seemed like a map of the melting pot of American culture and politics.

While works like this one relate to pop art, others had the power of abstraction. One of her signature velvets might be described as a “failed checkerboard.” Its little squares of black, dark green, lime and blue slide continuously in and out of register, creating the illusion of ceaseless motion, like a fractal model of rippling water.

This surface action, I discovered, reflected her constant improvisation: Tompkins began by cutting her squares (or triangles or bars) freehand, never measuring or using a template, and intuitively changed the colors, shapes and size of her fabric fragments, making her compositions seem to expand or contract. As a result her quilts could be deliriously akimbo, imbued with a mesmerizing pull of differences and inconsistencies that communicates impassioned attention and care.

“I think it’s because I love them so much that God let me see all these different colors,” Tompkins once said of her patchworks. “I hope they spread a lot of love.”

That 1997 Berkeley show was my first Rosie Lee Tompkins moment. Organized by Lawrence Rinder, the museum’s chief curator, it helped boost her reputation beyond the quilt world centered in and around San Francisco. This September many more people will have similar moments of their own, and feel the love implicit in her extraordinary achievement, when “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective” — the artist’s largest show yet — opens at the Berkeley Art Museum for a run through Dec. 20. (It debuted briefly in February before the coronavirus lockdown.) The museum’s website currently offers a robust online display and 70-minute virtual tour.

This exhibition, again organized by Rinder, the museum’s director until March, with Elaine Y. Yau, a postdoctoral curatorial fellow, marks the end of a 35-year saga. Though it began with Effie Mae Martin, it came to include a small, nervous collector named Eli Leon, who met her in 1985, fell in love with her quilts and those of many other African American creators in and around Richmond, and devoted half his life to acquiring, studying, exhibiting and writing about their work.

The Saga of Effie and Eli and Rosie Lee
Rosie Lee Tompkins grew up the eldest of 15 half siblings, picking cotton and piecing quilts for her mother. In 1958 she joined the postwar phase of the Great Migration, moving to Milwaukee and then Chicago, eventually settling in Richmond, a busy California port and shipyard that had become a destination for thousands of African Americans who moved out of the South, many bringing with them singular aspects of rural culture.

She studied nursing and for the next two decades or so worked at convalescent homes, a job she is said to have loved. She married and divorced Ellis Howard, raised five children and stepchildren, and started to make quilts to sell at the area’s many flea markets, along with other wares. She even had a printed business card that offered “Crazy Quilts and Pillows All Sizes.” By the late 1970s, according to the current exhibition’s catalog, she was earning as much as $400 a weekend from sales and quit her nursing job.

The flea markets were a quilter’s paradise in the 1970s, ’80s and beyond, places where the necessary materials were plentiful and cheap: printed, embroidered and sequined fabrics, beaded trim, crocheted doilies, needlepoint, buttons, secondhand clothing, costume jewelry — all of which, and more, Tompkins incorporated into her art.

The area was also paradise for quilt collectors, one of whom was Eli, born in the Bronx, New York, in 1935 and trained as a psychologist, whose collecting instincts verged on hoarding. Eli had also worked as a graphic designer, and sometime in the late 1970s, after years of haunting the area’s flea markets and yard sales for whatever appealed, he zeroed in on the visual vibrancy of quilts, evolving into a self-taught scholar. He lived frugally in a small bungalow in Oakland, California, that was eventually packed to its rafters with quilts, except for his dining room and kitchen. These were menageries of previous flea market obsessions, artifacts of between-the-wars popular culture — crafts, milk glass, dolls, cookie tins, but also meat grinders, toasters and enamel saucepans — mostly in the jade greens.

Around 1980, Eli turned his gimlet eye to searching out African American quilts and interviewing their makers. At flea markets he would approach anyone selling anything to ask if they knew of quilts for sale. One day he asked a woman selling kitchen utensils — Effie Mae Howard. He would later write, “She was evasive, but eventually let on that she herself dabbled in the craft.”

Thereafter he bought everything she would sell him, sometimes going into debt to do so. They were the jewels in the crown of a collection of African American quilts that would eventually number in the thousands.

Rosie Lee and Eli were an odd pair, both willful, defensive and fragile. Each had survived a nervous breakdown or two; Rosie Lee’s, coming sometime in the late ’70s, deepened the spirituality and intensity of her work, making it more than ever a haven from the world. Eli’s first came early, after his wife of five years left him. (They had met as students at Reed College, in Oregon, and married, even though they both knew he was gay.)

Eli believed Rosie Lee was a great artist and at one point made notes about illustrating an essay about her with works by Michelangelo, Mondrian and Picasso. The quilter thought she was an instrument of God and saw her work as an expression of her faith and his designs. “If people like my work,” she once told Eli, “that means the love of Jesus Christ is still shining through what I’m doing.”

In photographs, Rosie Lee looks tall, of regal posture. Eli’s devotion to her work made him a supplicant, willing to do anything — bring her fabrics and art books — to help with her work. He also wanted to promote it, devising Rosie Lee Tompkins as her “art” name, to preserve her privacy. Some people thought she might not exist, that Eli had made the quilts himself.

His promotional efforts, however, did not involve much selling: Eli was almost congenitally incapable of parting with any of his quilts, or anything else, that he accumulated. But within a year he began building a résumé of articles, exhibitions and lectures about the importance of African American quilts as well as their frequent emphasis on improvisation and their links to African textiles. In doing so, he contributed to the national awareness of quilts of all kinds by African Americans, which have been increasingly studied and exhibited since around 1980, thanks to the combined influences of the civil rights movement, feminism and multiculturalism.

His 1987 show, “Who’d a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking,” included a catalog essay by well-known Africanist Robert Ferris Thompson alongside his own. It opened at the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum in 1987 and, over the next decade, toured to 25 museums, including the American Craft Museum in New York City in 1989. (It was written about in the Home section of The New York Times, but significantly not in the Art pages.)

Eli made three trips to the South — on a Guggenheim grant in one instance — to meet the relatives of quilters he knew and collected around Oakland. In Arkansas, he visited Rosie Lee’s mother, Sadie Lee Dale, and bought one of her quilts, too.

Rinder’s Rosie Lee Tompkins conversion took place in a show of black and white quilts by African Americans that Eli organized in 1996 at the Richmond Art Center. The textile of hers that jumped out at Rinder is impressive even in photographs. Made from a family of velvets, it resembles op art, only softer, less mechanical and altogether more appealing.

Eager for more information about the artist, Rinder called up Eli, who responded: “You like that piece? You should see what she does with color!”

A Standout
Though I never met Tompkins, her quilts became stuck in my mind, sometimes at the forefront, sometimes in a corner. I mentioned her work in my writing when I could. Initially she seemed to belong to the first rank of outsider artists who began reshaping the American art canon around 1980, such geniuses as Martín Ramírez, Bill Traylor and Joseph Yoakum. Like Rosie Lee Tompkins, they were artists of color. (Others, like Henry Darger and James Castle, were white.) She was the only female artist I knew who seemed of their stature — perhaps beyond it — which was doubly exhilarating.

But the “self-taught” or “outsider” labels were inaccurate for quilters. Effie Mae Martin had grown up as her mother’s apprentice in a kind of atelier: a small town full of female friends and relatives who quilted, the older ones showing and telling the younger ones how it was done. More and more I saw her as a great American artist, no qualifier needed.

She reminded me of George Ohr, the unparalleled turn-of-the-century potter from Biloxi, Mississippi, whose his work was rediscovered in the early 1970s. Ohr’s precariously thin-walled vessels, unlikely shapes and inspired glazing shared a kind of bravura with Tompkins’ works. Both possessed an extraordinary skill and idiosyncratic abandon that creates a new sense of the possibilities of the hand, visual wit and beauty in any medium.

As with Ohr, Tompkins’ work triggered a kind of joy on first encounter. You could hear it in the reviews of the 2002 Whitney Biennial, which Rinder organized during his stint there as curator of contemporary art. He put three of her quilts in the show, one of which the Whitney acquired.

After a final decade that was a nearly vertical trajectory, hurtling toward art world fame, Rosie Lee Tompkins died suddenly, at 70, in December 2006, at her home. There were obituaries in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe.

Then, in 2013, Eli began to leave me urgent phone messages: “You have to come out here. I need help,” he said in his thin reedy voice. He had received a diagnosis of dementia and was worried about what would become of his collection, which he wanted to keep intact. It was overflowing not only his house but a small, climate-controlled annex he had built behind it.

I visited him that fall, to be stunned all over again when Eli and Jenny Hurth — his exemplary friend, assistant, fellow quilt lover and, after 2011, his most constant caregiver — unveiled a succession of Tompkins velvets, clipping them to the molding above the double doors between his living and dining rooms. I listened as Eli spoke about Tompkins, her life and work, and also his. (Eli was not shy about his considerable brilliance.) Wedging myself into the narrow gaps between the shelves of folded quilts in the annex, I got an inkling of how much I hadn’t seen.

With this visit, I joined a scattered group of individuals who had been seduced by Eli’s dedication but mainly by his collection, and were now concerned for its fate. In addition to Rinder and Hurth, it included Elsa Longhauser, then director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art (recently renamed the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles).

No one quite knew the actual size of his holdings — Eli provided only the vaguest of numbers when asked — but it seemed immense, judging from the 2- and 3-foot-high stacks of quilts that had to be navigated to get through his darkened living room.

I saw Eli once more, in 2016, when I went to Berkeley to review the inauguration of the museum’s new building. His dementia was much further along, but he smiled as Hurth introduced me to another dimension of Tompkins’ creativity: the words and numbers that she awkwardly whipstitched to her quilts, adding a layer of personal meaning in a spidery script that sometimes resembled graffiti done with a Rapidograph. She signed nearly everything with her real name, Effie, or some combination of Effie Mae Martin Howard, and often added her nearly palindromic date of birth, 9.6.36, or the birth dates of her sons, her parents and other relatives she wanted to honor.

Sometimes the embroidery reflected her daily Bible reading, including the Gospels, as did her addition of appliqué crosses. Occasionally she stitched the addresses of the places she had lived, and Eli’s home. The information suggested talismanic properties, perhaps prayers. She also said they were meant to improve the relationships between the people evoked by the numbers. In her “Three Sixes” quilts — inspired by the 6’s in the birth dates of three family members — she acknowledged them by limiting her palette to three colors: orange, yellow and purple.

Eli died on March 6, 2018, at 82, at an assisted-living home. To raise money for his care, Hurth oversaw multiple yard sales for the contents of his house — except the quilts. The question of their destiny hung uneasily in the air.

Eli’s Surprise
Several months later came the amazing news: Eli had bequeathed his entire quilt collection to the Berkeley Art Museum, a tribute to the early advocacy of Rinder. The final count of the Eli Leon Bequest was 3,100 quilts by over 400 artists.

Tompkins — represented by more than 680 quilts, quilt tops, appliqués, clothing and objects — is undoubtedly the star. Laverne Brackens, a well-known fourth-generation quilter in Texas, is a close second, with around 300 quilts in the collection.

While fraught with obligations regarding care, storage, display and access that few museums, large or small, would take on, the bequest automatically transforms the Berkeley museum, and its parent institution, the University of California, Berkeley, into an unparalleled center for the study of African American quilts. Interest and support are coming forth: The museum has already received a $500,000 grant from the Luce Foundation for a follow-up survey of Eli’s entire gift in 2022, which should be every bit as surprising as this one.

On the plane to San Francisco in February, I read the exhibition catalog cover to cover. The organizers’ excellent essays included Rinder vividly relating Tompkins’ use of improvisation to the innovations of Ornette Coleman and his “no-holds-barred free-jazz sensibility.” (Although he notes that she was an opera fan who listened to disco while doing her work.)

Yau provides the foundational account of Tompkins’ life, her working methods and the role of family ties and religion. And Horace D. Ballard, a former divinity student who is now a curator and art historian at Williams College and its museum, writes that Tompkins “lived in service of a higher calling,” tying her efforts to sacred music, texts and architecture.

But even they couldn’t prepare me for the visual force of the 62 quilts and five assemblagelike memory jugs, dating from the 1970s to 2004. Spread out in the museum’s sky-lighted galleries, the work’s beauty is more insistent than ever.

Because of Tompkins’ improvisation, a close look doesn’t reveal refinement or rote technique — skill for skill’s sake. It shows small individual adjustments made and liberties taken, almost granular expressions of imagination and freedom. In addition, the fabrics — variously elegant, everyday and ersatz — bring a lot with them, not just color and texture but also manufacturing techniques and social connotations. Do you think polyester double knit might look cheap used in a quilt? Think again. Cotton flannel and beaded and sequined silk crepe might not be a winning combination? Likewise. Such physical realism is all but impossible to achieve with paint.

A measure of Tompkins’ ambition is that she preferred to concentrate on the “free-jazz” aspect of her work: piecing the quilt tops. Other women finished the quilts by adding a layer of wadding and the back, a standard practice. Most of the pieces in this show were quilted by Irene Bankhead, whose work Eli also collected.

The show begins by demonstrating Tompkins’ unusual range and versatility, juxtaposing quilts in smoldering velvets with a medley of found denims — an homage to her grandfather and other farmers in her family.

A remarkable early quilt from the 1970s is pieced almost entirely of blocks of found fabric embroidered with flowers — old and new, made by machine and hand. They bow to an ancient craft and, at the quilt’s center, a spare image of the risen Christ blessing. Above and to the right a circle of twisted bands and leaves suggests both a crown of thorns and a laurel wreath. Was Tompkins aware of this possible reading? Perhaps, but the main point is that her work is open to the viewer’s response and interpretation.

As an artist, Tompkins may have taken improvisation further than other quilters. She all but abandoned pattern for an inspired randomness with an emphasis on serial disruptions that constantly divert or startle the eye — like the badge of a California prison guard sewn to an otherwise conventional crazy quilt. Another narrative quilt is more like a wall hanging, or maybe a street mural, pieced with large fragments of black and white fabric and T-shirts printed with images of African American athletes and political leaders. Rows of crosses made from men’s ties evoke the pressures of succeeding while Black in America.

Her big velvet quilts — the exultant heart of the show — are most often disrupted by dramatic shifts in color and scale. In one, several blocks of stark black and white triangles break through an expanse of rich colors like icebergs in a dark sea. The opposite corner features a distinctive Tompkins device: a small framed area composed of tiny squares that creates a quilt-within-a-quilt — which reads as a witty self-reference to the quilting process, and pulls us into the intimacy of making.

One of Tompkins’ most spectacular velvets is edged with these framed miniquilts, which surround an enormous field of blue velvets that creates a kind of van Gogh night sky; they can read as small painted side panels on an altarpiece. Some feature abutting triangles that suggest desert landscapes and pyramids, perhaps the Flight into Egypt. (In the catalog, Ballard resonantly likens the field of blues to the vault of a cathedral and the borders to clerestory windows.)

There are many museum exhibitions on lockdown in the United States right now. They closed in one world and will reopen in a very different one, and the relevance of “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective” has only expanded in the hiatus. The sheer joy of her best quilts cannot be overstated. They come at us with the force and sophistication of so-called high art, but are more democratic, without any intimidation factor.

Her work is simply further evidence of the towering African American achievements that permeate the culture of this country. A deeper understanding and knowledge of these, especially where art is concerned, must be part of the necessary rectification and healing that America faces.

Tompkins seems to have been an artist of singular greatness, but who knows what further revelations — including the upcoming survey of the Eli Leon Bequest — are in store. The field of improvisational quilting by African American women is not small, but beyond the great quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and a few others, their work is not widely known. Rosie Lee Tompkins’ version of what Eli Leon called “flexible patterning” may have been more extreme than anyone else’s. Or perhaps not. It would be gratifying to learn that she did not act alone.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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