In The Shape of Time (1962), art historian George Kubler suggests expanding the idea of art “to embrace the whole range of man-made things” so that it “coincides with the history of art.” Following Kubler’s dictum precludes any kind of argument concerning the categorization of Rosie Lee Tompkins’ extraordinary quilts, some 70 of which are presently on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). Still, as Elaine Y. Yau puts it in her deft and informative catalog essay, “Their potency arises when they are approached both as craft and as art.”
Rosie Lee Tompkins was a pseudonym, given to Effie Mae Howard (1936-2006) by the collector and curator Eli Leon. Extraordinarily gifted yet deeply private, Howard resisted any publicity – she even disliked having her picture taken, a humility that derived at least in part from her belief that she was merely God’s instrument and that her gifts for color and composition had been granted by His higher power. Born and raised in Arkansas, she came to California in 1958 as part of the Great Migration: the movement of six million Black Americans out of the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West. Howard eventually settled in Richmond where she lived until her death in 2006, raising a family and working as a practical nurse. She might have taken up sewing as a hobby — she’d learned to make quilts from her mother– or as a means to supplement to her income as a practical nurse, but it eventually became her primary occupation.
Leon was a psychologist, writer and obsessive collector who haunted flea markets and swap meets. His greatest passion was African-American quilts, a subject on which he became an authority. He immediately recognized the depth of Howard’s originality when he began buying her work in 1985. He purchased some 500 works by her over two decades, collecting quilts made by many others as well. Some appeared in shows he organized; one such exhibition traveled to venues all over the US between 1987 and 1997. In 1997, Tompkins was featured as a Matrix artist at the Berkeley Art Museum in her first solo show, and was subsequently included in the Whitney Biennial in 2002, to great critical acclaim. Many museum and gallery exhibitions followed. When Leon died in 2018, he left his quilt collection — some 3,000 pieces stacked floor-to-ceiling in his modest house — to the BAMPFA. (Works by other quilters from his bequest will be the subject of another show next year.)
The exhibition, which fills the building’s main galleries, is beautifully designed; it allows enough room to appreciate the unique qualities of each quilt while encouraging discovery of how Tompkins sometimes repeated compositional devices across multiple works. One such device is the “quilt within a quilt “– a tiny framed square within a freely pieced field of color and pattern. Some quilts contain only one; others are peppered with them.
The improvisational nature of her practice is clear from the first work in the show, String (1985), one of the few pieces carrying a title. Rather than adhering to the strict geometries characteristic of the traditional patterns used in European-American quilts, Tompkins employed an organic accumulation of half squares (as triangles are called among quilters) and strips, cut without measuring. The resulting compositions seem to have been built, piece by piece, from parts, often from the center outwards or in multiple sections that are later united. This aspect of her practice seems almost sculptural, rather than painterly.
The impression that the works grew almost organically from the center to the edges is particularly strong in three that hang side-by-side in the second room. Dating from 1986 or 1987, each features a complex inner structure surrounded by a larger rectangle. In one, a framework of eight hollow squares of different sizes, pieced out of pink-and pale-yellow cotton, floats in a field of deep jewel tones of velvet. Of course, the darker field both within the hollow framework and surrounding it consists of pieced squares as well, each a complex composition of colors and shapes.
Another notable trait is the varied sizes and shapes of Tompkins’ works– which, though quilted, were not made as bed coverings but as decorative works. One of the “picture” quilts, featuring tea towels and other printed textiles, is immense; others, like several in the final gallery dating from the last years of Tompkins’ life, are quite small. A long, narrow undated piece, composed of intricate checkerboards and stripes interspersed with triangles at a different scales, suggests a banner. Its long, slightly undulating rectangle tapers slightly towards the bottom and features a delicate combination of pinks and grays, the latter color visually textured with a printed pattern. The unusual shape of works like this made me wonder what Tompkins might have thought about its finished appearance. With few exceptions, she made only the tops of her quilts. When she completed one, Leon would take it to a seamstress for quilting. (Judging from the labels in the exhibition, that work was often performed by Irene Bankhead, an accomplished quiltmaker in her own right.) The quilter would sometimes have to cut the pieced top down or alter it in other ways in order to be able to attach it to a cotton backing with a layer of batting between.
Like many great works of art and craft, Tompkins’ reward careful examination up close and at a distance. She liked listening to disco while sewing, including the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. I couldn’t help thinking about that while looking a quilt made of several kinds and colors of velvet, including a glitter-patterned dark blue whose swooping paisleys only become visible from a few inches away. Velvet appears in many of the quilts; it is a unique fabric in that it both absorbs and reflects light, and though tricky to manipulate, its soft, delicate nap and rich, deep colors must have been a sensory pleasure to sew. In many pieces, triangles and bars of velvet pucker along their slightly gathered edges, creating a rippled, luminous texture.
While Tompkins’ mastery of abstract composition made her the subject of critical attention, she also created pieces that incorporate pictorial elements: portraits cut from T-shirts, patterned dishtowels, and other printed textiles. The show includes extraordinary examples of both, and each deserves consideration. Embroidered signatures of her real name, Effie, as well as her birthdate and those of relatives appear on many quilts, along with citations of biblical verses. Her late works, composed largely of biblical citations and/or crosses, fall somewhere between pictorial and abstract, and point towards a central influence in her work and life: namely, that everything she made was shaped by her Seventh Day Adventist faith. For this Protestant Christian denomination, the Bible is both a literal revelation of God’s will and a roadmap for life. There is also a broader cultural significance in Tompkins’ improvisational quilting practice. It is an expressive form handed down through generations of Black women as a way of creating comfort, beauty and spiritual succor.
As Julia Pelta Feldman suggests in a recent Artforum column about accessibility: “A non-universalizing understanding must involve acknowledging the limits of what we can get.” In other words, we can honor and take pleasure in Tompkins’ work, but as outsiders to her culture and faith, we may not have access to its many layers of meaning. Still, it’s important to try. To do so is to appreciate the work not only for what we see in it that reflects our own values and ideas, but for what we might not.
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Rosie Lee Tompkins: a Retrospective @ Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through July 18, 2021.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, Since the late ‘80s, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many now-defunct sites or magazines. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she is a professor at California College of the Arts.