The artist Zoe Leonard always admired the work of the late quilt maker Rosie Lee Tompkins. But it wasn’t until she spent two full days examining Tompkins’s enormous, banner-like quilts in person that she realized the weight of her influence. Tompkins, who died in 2006, spent most of her life in Northern California’s Bay Area crafting pieces that were more works of art than they were blankets you’d throw on top of your bed. And in 2016, Leonard, who specializes in photography and sculpture, discovered just how meaningful Tompkins’s contribution to the arts was.
That year, the senior curator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, Lynne Cooke, invited Leonard to travel to Oakland, California to help her choose a number of Tompkins’s quilts for a 2017 show at the museum titled “Outliers and American Vanguard Art.” Leonard flew from New York to a craftsman-style home in the East Bay that belonged to a man named Eli Leon; he has collected hundreds of Tompkins’s pieces after making it his personal life mission to preserve her oeuvre since the 1980s, when he met Tompkins and fell in love with her work. In his basement, Leonard and Cooke leafed through quilts stacked on shelves that stretched to the ceiling. The quilts—done in Tompkins’s signature color palette of orange, yellow, and purple; some made of crushed velvet; most bearing bible verses, all fantastically inventive—stunned Leonard.
“As much as I had loved her before, that experience made it clear to me that she’s a giant of 20th century modern art,” Leonard told me over the phone recently.
More than 14 years after Tompkins’s death, her work is experiencing a re-entry into the spotlight. Since January 15, Anthony Meier Fine Arts has presented an exhibition of never-before-seen works by Tompkins, coinciding with a major retrospective of her work at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) that opened last year. But it’s also possible you have never heard of Rosie Lee Tompkins. She was a notoriously private person who operated under a pseudonym (her real name was Effie Mae Howard), and there are hardly any photographs of her on the internet. According to the artist Glenn Ligon, (who, along with Leonard, identifies Tompkins as being among his favorite artists), when one of her sons drove her to the Berkeley Art Museum for a panel discussion on her career, she asked him if she could stay in the car.
There is a distinct group of passionate creatives who consider Tompkins a groundbreaking artist and the greatest quilt maker of her time. Horace Ballard, a curator at the Williams College Museum of Art and a professor of American and European art at the Clark Art Institute, referred to her work as being “pointed toward a higher purpose.” The designer Emily Adams Bode, whose label Bode leads a pack of craft-focused fashion brands, cites Tompkins as an inspiration. The iconic musician David Byrne is a huge fan. Lawrence Rinder, the former director of BAMPFA, whose new essay on Tompkins is featured at Anthony Meier, has spent the bulk of his career studying and championing the quilt maker. Each person I spoke to sung her praises and revered her more than the last.
Tompkins, born Howard in rural Gould, Arkansas in 1936, was one of 15 children, all of whom were her half-siblings. She first started quilt making at her mother’s behest. When she moved to Richmond, a port town just north of Berkeley in 1958, she worked at nursing homes before quilting in earnest starting around the 1970s. She sold her works at flea markets around the Bay, which, at the time, were a quilt maker’s dream—there, she could buy and trade all kinds of textiles with her fellow vendors. Plus, she was making pretty good money. She quit her job in nursing shortly thereafter.
Tompkins’s pieces from the 1970s onward are extraordinarily vivid—her eye for color composition is one of a kind, and her body of work transcends any kind of genre. If you think you’ve pinned down her signature style in one quilt, the next will debunk that notion quickly: she shifts between Mondrian-esque blocking to more traditional patchwork, then takes a hard left turn with an abstract, fractal quilt bearing religious overtones, crosses akimbo. Then, she’ll suddenly switch to what can only be described as pop art: images of Michael Jordan, OJ Simpson, John F. Kennedy, and even Jesus Christ appear in various compositions. Her use of text, stitched into the fabric, resembles Basquiat’s scrawl.
The reaction to Tompkins’s retrospective and the exhibition at Anthony Meier also speak to a growing interest in traditional crafts. For people stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, sewing, knitting, and embroidery have been a respite from internal and external chaos—or just too much screen time.
“There’s this incredible moment where the discourse of our lives during Covid and the desire to think broadly about DIY 2.0 are coming together,” Ballard said. “There’s something about that infinitesimal and deeply personal stitch over and over again, which references really hard days of just putting one foot in front of the other.”
Fashion is not exempt from this trend, as Bode points out—in fact, it’s deeply embedded in it. Alongside Bode’s popular pieces, designers like David Lauren, Stella McCartney, and even Versace have released patchwork jackets and quilt-like work coats in recent seasons.
“Of course, I love the aesthetic of it, but it really has to do with the preservation of these narratives and these stories,” Bode said. “With Tompkins, my favorite works of hers are the ones that are like a scrapbook of her beliefs. People are hungry to understand histories and art practices that are leading to a resurgence in these crafts right now.”
“For me, the use of quilts and textiles has to do with the preservation of craft,” she added. “That’s my mission statement and my ethos as a designer.” But, she added, the rich history of quilting—both deeply political and feminist—lends a distinct narrative to the art of quilt making.
The most important thing to know about Tompkins, Ligon told me, is that she was, first and foremost, a Black quilter and a deeply religious woman (“If people like my work,” she said to Leon once, “the love of Jesus Christ is still shining through what I’m doing.”).
“If you have a quilt that has pictures of Michael Jordan and OJ Simpson on it, that’s a Black story,” Ligon noted. “There’s an investigation of Black masculinity and images of them embedded in that. There’s also a David Hammons quote about how he likes the way Black people put things together, because everything’s a bit off. Nothing’s quite at right angles. And you see that in her work, too. Everything’s a bit in motion.”
While rifling through Leon’s Tompkins archive at his home in the East Bay some five years ago, Leonard had a similar revelation. She saw long tails of fabric trailing off the sides of certain quilts—there was a crooked piece of velvet here, the remnants of a dish towel there. But each piece transmitted a very specific message, and the quilt maker’s interests and intentions sang. In these pieces, Tompkins’s life story could be found.
“There are languages used in quilting that are on par with visual languages used in much modern and contemporary art,” Leonard said. “These are not designed objects for the home. These are not bed coverings, they’re not meant to be utilitarian in any way. They’re breathtaking. And the work makes an argument for itself.”