A Colorful Passion for Unique African American Quilts

By SUSAN PARKER Special to the Planet
Friday August 08, 2003

My neighbor, Eli Leon, is an amazing man. A sixty-eight year old New York City transplant, Leon arrived in North Oakland over forty-three years ago, by way of the Bronx, Black Mountain and Reed colleges, the University of Chicago and the East Village. 

Rather than finishing his experimental psych dissertation, he escaped to the Bay Area where he got a job at an insurance company. The insurance company sent him to computer programming school and he wound up in a big room full of boxes, machines and punch cards. That didn’t last very long. Next he became a psychedelic poster artist (one of his creations was in the 1999-2000 Far Out exhibit at SFMOMA) and then he morphed into a counselor (Gestalt Therapy). From there it was an easy, if not logical transition to his next transformation. Leon started collecting quilts. He haunted flea markets and yard sales around the East Bay and beyond, looking for what he calls “standard traditional” pieces. 

But a funny thing happened. He was drawn to quilts that weren’t quite standard or traditional. The squares and triangles within the quilts he liked didn’t always match, the patterns didn’t exactly align, the repetitions didn’t necessarily repeat themselves in a logical way, the materials used weren’t always made of 100 percent brushed cotton. Sometimes they were created from terry cloth, denim, corduroy, velvet and stretchy polyester, fabrics that glittered and shined and felt funny to the touch. 

The quilts he liked were not always square. They didn’t necessarily fit on a king size mattress. Some were tiny, the size of a doll bed, others were huge, as if the quilter had lost control over her materials. It wasn’t until he had stashed away many of these eccentric spreads that Leon finally figured out what was going on. He was immensely, overwhelmingly attracted to quilts made by African American women, blankets that were made with the scraps of fabric that were on hand, to be used on the beds, sofas and chairs of their homes. Leon had, without even knowing it, become an African American quilt groupie. And not just any groupie. He now owns more African American-made quilts than almost anyone on earth, and he has become a knowledgeable, respected expert on this eclectic, idiosyncratic art form. 

I first heard about Leon years ago, through my feisty neighbor Mrs. Gerstine Scott. Gerstine, a quilter, had told me about the man up the street who had written a book about quilting called “Who’d a Thought It.” 

“It’s a real good book,” said Mrs. Scott. “You should check it out.” But it wasn’t until just the other day, long after Mrs. Scott’s heart gave way and she went to (and is no doubt presiding over) the big quilt show in the sky, that I finally got a chance to meet the gentleman Mrs. Scott referred to as “Eli, the quilt man.” 

Every couple of months Leon documents his acquisitions by hanging them outside his front window and taking photographs of them from the street. He invites quilters and fans to watch as he works. People, mostly women, come from all over the Bay Area to sit in the middle of the road and observe Leon as he unveils his trophies. I chatted with three women from Muir Beach, one of whom was multi-tasking. As she viewed the changing display she worked on her own quilt, a beautiful, softly muted cotton extravaganza. “What’s the pattern?” I asked her. “It’s a cross between a Courthouse Steps and a Log Cabin,” she answered. She then drew two complicated diagrams on a piece of paper for me to see. There were lots of squares, numbers, arrows and shaded areas. “But it’s not really either of these,” she said. “It’s something else altogether.” 

And that just about describes the more than twenty quilts Leon put on display that afternoon. There were necktie quilts and patchwork quilts, appliquéd numbers and samplers. The majority of them were pieced together by Richmond, California resident Rosie Lee Tompkins, and, as is often the case with African American-made quilts, contracted to another person to finish. 

Expert quilter Irene Bankhead completes Rosie’s work on her dining room table using piles of dinner plates to hold the three pieces—top, batting and backing—together. Irene, who stopped by to drop off one of Rosie’s newest pieces and to display one of her own string quilts, says that setting up a quilting frame is too much trouble and that it takes up too much space in her house. She prefers her “dinner plate” method. 

Originally from rural eastern Arkansas, Rosie’s quilts have been collected by Leon for many years. “Right now she’s in a very productive mood,” said Leon of the press-shy, reclusive Ms. Tompkins. “She’s making lots of little pieces that she hangs on the walls of her home. She says she never really learned how to make quilts,” he added. “She god’s instrument.” Indeed, many of the quilts had crosses of various sizes and colors imbedded within them, and none of her quilts were “traditional.” Leon calls them improvisational and others have said that these quilts follow the elusive rhythms and patterns of modern jazz. “I disagree,” says Leon. “I think they are more like the Blues or Gospel.” A quick check on the Internet reveals that Rosie doesn’t think about jazz when she’s quilting. She listens to disco. 

Halfway through the show, I shifted my seat and sat next to a 101-year-old woman whose daughter had driven her from Suisan City to take a peak at Leon’s quilts. “Are you a quilter?” I asked. “No,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “I just like to look at ‘em. You like ‘em too, don’t ya?” 

“Yes,” I said. “I sure do.” 

Collected by Eli Leon, Rosie Lee Tompkins’s quilts will be shown at the Anthony Meier Fine Arts gallery beginning Sept. 5.  


3007 Jackson Street, San Francisco; gallery@anthonymeierfinearts.com; 

415-351-1400; Tues – Fri 11am – 5 pm