Rosie Lee Tomkins (Effie Mae Howard), 1936-2006

By Eli Leon, Special to the Planet
Friday December 08, 2006

African-American quiltmaker Effie Mae Howard who, under the name of Rosie Lee Tompkins, produced astonishing works of patchwork art, died at the age of 70, Thursday or Friday, of unknown causes. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote that Tompkins’s textile art works “demolish the category.” 

“Tompkins’s work reminds us,” Smith said, “that the truly global nature of 20th-century modernism is not yet fully known. It also confirms that the persistence of painting is but one part of a larger phenomenon: the cross-medium, transcultural ubiquity of the pictorial.” 

On a more down-to-earth note, Smith said. “These pictorial powerhouses are like multifaceted jewels spread flat before the eye yet turning in the light, their sparkling shards of color and mutating geometries full of mystery and life.”  

One of 15 children, Tompkins grew up helping her mother piece quilts in rural southeast Arkansas, where poverty constrained the family to use every available scrap of cloth. Her prodigious talents, however, were eventually widely recognized. 

“Writers have compared Tompkins,” said New Yorker reviewer Andrea Scott, “to canonical bigwigs like Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, and Alfred Jensen. But for all their affinities with modernist paintings, her quilts have a tactile allure and wobbly ecstasy unmatched by any canvas.” 

“I doubt that Tompkins set out to trump painting with her quilts,” said Artforum critic Meghan Dailey, “but with cloth and thread she does achieve a kind of improvisational restlessness, and ultimate coherence, that a lot of painters can only hope to approximate.” 

“Resolutely nonreferential,” said Art in America critic, Eleanor Heartney, “Tompkins’s quilts bring to mind the efforts of early American modernists to forge a language of pure abstraction. That she does so with scraps of cloth instead of paint in no way diminishes her achievement.” 

“Here is inventiveness and originality so palpable and intense,” said former Whitney curator Lawrence Rinder, “that each work seems like a new and total risk, a risk so extreme that only utter faith in the power of the creative spirit could have engendered it.” 

“These quilts are works of such distinction and devotion” Artweek critic Alison Bing said, “that they supercede established art-historical categories, forcing reviewers to retreat to that dumfounded admiration that attracted us to art in the first place.” 

Tompkins never went to high school, but she moved to Milwaukee and Chicago before going west in 1958. She took adult education classes in Berkeley, passed a test to get into college and took a few business classes at Oakland City College. Then she completed one course in nursing at the Martha Howard School of Nursing and another at Richmond High. She eventually settled in Richmond and worked as a practical nurse in rest homes, a job which she loved. Married twice, she raised five children and stepchildren. She is survived by her mother, two sons, and numerous other relatives.. 

Deeply religious, Tompkins felt that she was God’s instrument. Her patchworks were designed by Him; she was grateful to have found this uplifting way of worshiping. Following an elaborate personal code that came to her during prayer, she pieced with particular family members in mind. Empowered by a force greater than herself, she thus attended to in-family spiritual relationships in the course of fabricating her extraordinary works of art. 

Tompkins was intensely private. She only ever met four people as the artist “Rosie Lee Tompkins” (curator Lawrence Rinder, Africanist Robert Farris Thompson, historian Glenna Matthews, and myself, since I am a quilt scholar). But she heard voices, believed that her phone was tapped, and never arrived at the peace she so desired. 

“I feel like I don’t have any privacy—” she told me, “like I’m living in a glass house or something—where everybody’s always looking in or listening to what I say.” 

She covered one wall of her bedroom with patchwork crowded with appliqued crosses, hoping it would impede the intruding voices, but it failed to do so. 

Images of Tompkins’s quilts frequently illustrated magazine and newspaper coverage of exhibitions that included her work. Threads magazine featured one of her quilts on their October 1989 cover; this quilt was later purchased by the Whitney Museum. Her work was accorded a separate gallery for the High Museum’s 1996-1997 “No Two Alike: African-American Improvisational Quilts” exhibition and featured in the show’s poster. Her first one-woman exhibit (“Rosie Lee Tompkins,” Berkeley Art Museum, 1997), was hailed as a defining moment in fiber art history. 

“The critical barriers that once stood,” wrote Candace Crockett, quoting San Francisco Chronicle critic Kenneth Baker, “between art and craft, between popular and elite sensibility, between European and pan-cultural aesthetics, are down.” 

In 2002, Tompkins’s entries in the Whitney Biennial were characterized as the best “painting” in the show. Her work has graced five of of my cataloged exhibitions and is now featured on the catalog cover for “Accidentally on Purpose,” showing at the Figge Museum of Art in Davenport, Iowa until Feb. 11. The Shelburne Museum plans to do a one-woman show of her work from May to October 2007. It will be called “Something Pertaining to God.” 


Contributed photo  

Three Sixes (quiltmaker's title). Pieced by Rosie Lee Tompkins, Richmond, California, 1987. Quilted by Willia Ette Graham, Oakland, California, 1996. 77" x 98". Front: polyester doubleknit, polyester knit, broadcloth, ottoman, poplin, wool jersey. Back: muslin.