Rosie Lee Tompkins, African-American Quiltmaker, Dies at 70

Reprinted from the New York Times

Published: December 6, 2006
Rosie Lee Tompkins, a renowned African-American quiltmaker whose use of dazzling color and vivid geometric forms made her work internationally acclaimed despite her vehement efforts to remain completely unknown, was found dead on Friday at her home in Richmond, Calif. She was 70. The cause of death had not been determined, Eli Leon, a quilt scholar and longtime friend, said yesterday.
In everyday life, Ms. Tompkins was Effie Mae Howard, a fiercely private woman who lived quietly in Richmond and worked as a practical nurse. As Rosie Lee Tompkins, the pseudonym under which her quilts were shown, she was exhibited, much to her chagrin, in prestigious museums and galleries in the United States and Japan.
Lavishly praised by critics, Ms. Tompkins’s quilts are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Oakland Museum in California. Her work was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2002.
Writing in The New York Times the same year, Roberta Smith reviewed an exhibition of Ms. Tompkins’s work at the Peter Blum Gallery in Manhattan: “Unerring and intuitive in their sense of color, shape and scale, Ms. Tompkins’s quilts are formidably joyful visual events that ignore the usual boundaries between cultures, histories and mediums.”
Born and raised in Arkansas, Ms. Tompkins was heir to the long tradition of black Southern quilting, a form of folk art whose best-known practitioners include the women of Gee’s Bend, Ala. Their work, vibrant geometric quilts made from whatever scraps came to hand, became famous after it was shown at the Whitney in 2002 and 2003.
Ms. Tompkins’s quilts are even more radical. Made of massed, vivid patches, they exude a barely controlled geometric anarchy. Stripes can be thrillingly off kilter. Patterns shift and fracture. The result, riotous mosaics in cloth, has been likened by critics to Modernist painting.
In traditional quilts, the fabric of choice is cotton. Ms. Tompkins’s quilts can also include cut-up feed sacks, rayon, velvet, polyester, fake fur, wool and silk. Each material reflects light differently; in combination, they make her work look like something viewed through a prism.
Ms. Tompkins was born Effie Mae Martin on Sept. 6, 1936, in rural southeast Arkansas. (Effie Mae Howard was her married name.) One of 15 children, she picked cotton and helped her mother make quilts for the family. She left school before starting high school, and in 1958 settled in California.
There, she took classes in practical nursing and went to work in nursing homes. Around 1980, Ms. Tompkins started to quilt in earnest, producing hundreds of patchwork items of various sizes, showing them to almost no one outside her family.
She arrived at many of her designs — abstract, improvisational and filled with deep personal significance — after private prayer. Ms. Tompkins believed herself to be merely an instrument, Mr. Leon said. It was God, she felt, who designed the quilts and guided her hand.
She also believed that her phone was tapped. Sometimes she heard voices. She covered one wall of her bedroom with hangings, thick with appliquéd crosses, which she hoped would still them. They did not.
Even as her quilts gained renown, Ms. Tompkins revealed her true identity to only a handful of trusted associates, among them Mr. Leon, the quilt scholar. She never attended her out-of-town exhibitions. If a friend managed to drag her to a local exhibition of her work, she quietly slipped into the gallery anonymously.
“Something she told me once was that despite the fact that nobody knew who she was, she felt like she had no privacy,” Mr. Leon said by telephone yesterday. “She felt like she lived in a glass house and people were watching her.”
Ms. Tompkins, who for deeply held reasons of her own refused to sign documents, rarely sold her work. Those quilts she did sell went for tens of thousands of dollars apiece, Mr. Leon said.
She was also fiercely circumspect about disclosing the names and whereabouts of family members. Mr. Leon was equally circumspect yesterday. It is known that Ms. Tompkins was married and divorced twice; survivors include her mother; several children and stepchildren; and many siblings, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A one-woman show of Ms. Tompkins’s work is scheduled for next year at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt., from May 20 to Oct. 31.
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