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Rosie Lee Tompkins

Born 1936, southeast Arkansas

Died 2006, Richmond, California

Rosie Lee Tompkins is the pseudonym of quilter Effie Mae Howard, who carefully guarded her privacy after her rise to national prominence in the late 1990s. As a child in rural Arkansas, she learned the southern African American quilting tradition from her mother. Yet Tompkins spent most of her life in Richmond, California, where she worked as a nurse and only resumed quilting following a nervous breakdown in the late 1970s. In 1985 she met Eli Leon, a collector and scholar of African American quilts, who facilitated the exhibition of her work. Awarded a solo exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum in California in 1997, Tompkins then appeared in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, held several months before the landmark exhibition The Quilts of Gee’s Bend at the same museum.

Constructed from a prismatic array of colors and textures, Tompkins’s quilts fuse diverse materials, including velvet, glittery novelty fabric, fake fur, and polyester. Proliferations of rectangular units in many of her textiles resemble the pulsating abstractions of midcentury op art. Her works have also garnered comparisons to a range of African arts and crafts, from bark cloth paintings to Kente cloth. Claiming religious inspiration for her designs, she described her process as a kind of meditative prayer. Tompkins only sewed quilt tops, testifying to the spiritual and aesthetic, rather than purely functional, dimensions of her practice.

Untitled of 1986 and Three Sixes are both made of long “strips” constructed from smaller, irregular rectangles sewn together. By joining these strips, Tompkins produced complex grids of fabric that waver as the blocks of color expand and contract. Combined with this animated structure, Tompkins’s use of close color contrasts produces a jewel-like flickering quality. In Three Sixes warm yellows, oranges, corals, pinks, and reds are interspersed with contrasting blacks and blues in an allover pattern, while Untitled features a spectrum of velvety greens arranged into a sumptuous dark surface broken up by a few asymmetrical glints of chartreuse and yellow. In another untitled quilt Tompkins employed a similarly improvisatory method to join together “blocks” of pure color with swatches of fabric featuring recognizable motifs and images.


Jenevive Nykolak


Rinder, Lawrence. Rosie Lee Tompkins. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Art Museum, 1997.