Rosie Lee Tompkins was a reluctant art star.
Born Effie May Howard in rural Arkansas in 1936, her mother taught her to sew and quilt, just like a long line of ancestors before her. Out of necessity, they learned to make quilts—to keep their family warm and to be sold for extra money. Howard learned a unique, improvisational design style, passed down through generations of African-American quilters. The works, spontaneous mazes of shapes and colors, are a stark contrast to traditional American quilts, known for their strict form and patterns.
For Tompkins, a skill that started as a necessity evolved into an eclectic body of work. Starting last weekend and running through February 21, 2016, a selection of Tompkins’ pieces is now on display in the Oakland Museum of California’s newest exhibition: Yo-Yos and Half-Squares: Contemporary California Quilts. Her quilts are showcased alongside those of four other Bay Area women: Angie Tobias, Arbie Williams, Mattie Pickett, and Sherry Byrd.
“These were not like any other quilts I’ve ever seen,” said Oakland Museum of California director Lori Fogarty. Fogarty comes from Midwestern roots, and said that “quilts from Iowa are straight seams, and square and meant to go on beds. I looked at these quilts and thought ‘Wow, this is something really extraordinary.’”
The exhibition is a dizzying display of radiating colors and unique fabrics. Some of the pieces are riffs on traditional quilting patters, like Sherry Byrd’s 1989 piece Roman Stripe Variations, which pairs red and black piecework, framed by striking blue outlines. Byrd’s work is accompanied by a quote from her that explains the philosophy behind improvisational quilting: “I’ve always been surrounded by music and quilt. To me, they are alike. Both are improvisational. Instead of playing jazz with musical instruments, we play jazz with a needle and thread.”
Another stand-out piece is Tompkins’ Unfinished, which associate curator Carin Adams says she worked on throughout her life. Tompkins used a lush red velvet as a background to a singular mix of patchwork. The piece includes beads, turquoise sequins, embroidered flowers—even a painting of maracas.
After moving to California in 1958, Tompkins continued to quilt, but became most active in the 1980s. Her work is a singular web of sparkles, beads and upholstery so shiny that she called it “Christmas fabric.” Her work eventually caught the eye of Eli Leon, an Oakland quilt collector who began collecting Afro-traditional quilts in the 1970s. Leon and Tompkins became close friends. Together they began to exhibit her quilts in over 30 cities, and eventually landed her work in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
According to her New York Times 2006 obituary, Tompkins was a deeply pious, and “fiercely private” woman. Her designs were inspired by meditative prayer, and she believed she was communing directly with God in her work. Tompkins did not want fame. So together with Leon, she chose a pseudonym that would follow her work around the world: Rosie Lee Tompkins.
Leon, a lifelong collector of quilts, has over 3,000 stored in his Temescal bungalow, according to Adams. Amongst his greatest finds were the works of these East Bay women. In his mission statement on his website, Leon wrote about the spontaneous approach to quilting that makes this type of quilting so unique. Afro-traditional quilters, he wrote, have a “generous attitude toward the accidental, embracing innovations that originate beyond the conscious domain. [Their] methods are antithetical to the standard American quiltmaking tradition.”
The quilts in Yo-Yos and Half-Squares were hand-selected from Leon’s vast collection; Adams notes that the pieces in the show represent a “tiny fraction” of them. “My colleagues and I looked at hundreds of quilts. But we tried to focus on quilts that were made locally, in the Bay Area,” she said.
With this exhibition, Adams hopes visitors “see something that [they] weren’t expecting, and leave with a feeling of transformation and appreciation for something that is so vital, and living, and going—intimate and really extraordinary.”