Friday, February 28, 2020

Quilts by Rosie Lee Tompkins

About five months ago, the art museum of the University of California, Berkeley learned that they had inherited three thousand quilts made by African-American quilters, many from the Bay Area. The museum immediately went to work to organize the first of several exhibitions of these vintage quilts. Please join us to see some highlights below !

String by Rosie Lee Tompkins, 1985, quilted by Willia Ette Graham

The quilts we are showing in this series were all made by Rosie Lee Tompkins, which was the pseudonym of Effie Mae Howard. Born into a family of Arkansas share croppers in 1936, she did not begin quiltmaking until the 1970's, when she was living in California. She favored bright, contrasting colors and large geometric shapes, which made brilliant, highly original designs.

According to the information the museum has about Tompkins, one of her favorite fabrics was velvet, due to its soft tactile qualities and the ability of the fabric to hold color saturation. This quilt appears to be all hand-pieced and hand-quilted, although it is not noted on the description card.

Untitled 1995, quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1997

Tompkins enjoyed collecting bits and pieces of heavily embellished fabric like satins and brocades that were sequined, beaded, or embroidered. The quilt above is composed of velvet with rhinestones, beaded silk satin, angora sweater scraps, beaded crepe, and knit mesh with metal links, among other materials. She collaged these materials on a background of black muslin, as shown above.

Here's a piece of a beaded handbag that Tompkins included on this quilt. Tomkins did not intend for her quilts to be used as bed coverings, as the fabrics were too fragile. She intended that her quilt should be displayed as large panels of abstract or non-objective art.

Untitled 1996, quilted by Irene Bankhead 1998

What an incredible array of fabrics went into this 1996 work ! It's done with velvet, velveteen, cotton embroidery, silk, cotton corduroy, rayon brocade, printed silk, silk crepe with rhinestones, decorative trim with rhinestones and sequins,  faux fur, beaded embroidery, and cotton muslin backing.

Comprised of many solid colors, with decorative blanket stitching around the edge of piece, this quilt is reminiscent of the style of Victorian "crazy quilts." Tomkins was an original, very innovative designer, and here she adds a special personal touch, with the addition of the word "love" and an elegant bow to highlight this focal point.

Untitled 1968, 1982-83, 1996

Rosie Lee Tompkins created more than 500 quilts in her lifetime. They were preserved and displayed by her colleague, Eli Leon, an Oakland, California art scholar and avid collector of African-American quilts. Through his friendship with Tompkins, Eli Leon formed relationships with the African-American quilting community in the Bay Area and went on to organize more than a dozen exhibitions across the country.

This beautiful and fascinating quilt is comprised of cotton, felt, wool, velvet, velveteen, re-purposed embroidered fragments, crocheted doilies, silk crepe, decorative trims of rhinestones, sequins, and pearls, and printed drapery backing. We love the amazing array of textiles on display here !

Untitled 1984, quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1997

Here's a wonderful work of half-square triangles, which reflects Tompkin's improvisational  approach to composition. In many cases, these quilts have no obvious orientation, so the museum curators have decided how they should be hung. By displaying this cheerful quilt horizontally, the brighter triangles appear prominent and really make Tompkins' work sparkle.

This quilt is comprised of cotton, polyester, and rayon fabrics, with a cotton backing. To us, they look like vibrant tropical prints, such as those used to construct Hawaiian themed-clothing. Tompkins has selected a fabulous display contrasting prints.


Image Credits: Photographed by Quilt Inspiration with permission of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives.

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