Eli Leon, born Robert Stanley Leon (June 27, 1935 – March 6, 2018), was a psychologist, writer and collector. As a self-taught scholar of African-American quilts, he helped bring attention to the field and especially to the quilts of Rosie Lee Tompkins.
Leon was born in the Bronx in 1935, the son of first-generation Jews from Lithuania. He attended the High School of Music & Art, then entered Oberlin College before transferring to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology in 1958. He then earned a master's from the University of Chicago, where he trained in Reichian psychotherapy. In the late 1950s and early '60s, he was briefly married to his college girlfriend, although they both knew he was gay. Sometime after that he changed his first name to Eli and settled in Oakland, California.
An obsessive collector, Leon became a regular at flea markets in and around Oakland, where his main focus became African-American quilts. He became an expert on the subject, traveling to Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas to conduct research. In 1989, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue his research.
Leon organized a number of exhibitions across the United States, for which he wrote the catalogs:
- Who'd a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking (San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum, c. 1987)
- Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Diggs Gallery: Winston-Salem State University, c. 1992)
- Arbie Williams Transforms the Britches Quilt (Regents of the University of California and the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery, UCSC, 1993)
- "Showing up": Maximum-Contrast African-American Quilts (Richmond, CA: Richmond Art Center, 1996)
- Something Else to See: Improvisational Bordering Styles in African-American Quilts (University of Massachusetts at Amherst, c. 1997)
- No Two Alike : African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern (Columbia, S.C.: South Carolina State Museum, c. 1998)
- Something Pertaining to God (Shelburne, VT: Shelburne Museum, 2006)
- Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African-American Quilts (Davenport, Iowa: Figge Art Museum, 2007)
Upon his death in 2018 in Emeryville, California, Leon bequeathed his collection of almost 3000 African-American quilts, including more than 500 by Rosie Lee Tompkins, to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), whose director, Lawrence Rinder, worked closely with Leon to organize the first solo exhibition of Tompkin's work in 1997. The bequest will account for about 15 percent of the museum's art collection.
Drawing from the Eli Leon Collection, BAMPFA organized the exhibit Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective (February 19 to July 19, 2020). A subsequent exhibition showcasing the broader collection will open at the museum in 2022.
- Smith, Roberta (2018-03-23). "Eli Leon, 82, Dies; Champion of African-American Quilt Makers". The New York Times.
- "BAMPFA Receives Historic Bequest of Nearly Three Thousand Quilts by African American Artists". bampfa.org.
- Libbey, Peter (2019-10-16). "African-American Art Quilts Find a Museum Home in California". The New York Times.
- "Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective". bampfa.org.