Rosie Lee Tompkins

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Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936–2006) is the assumed name of Effie Mae Martin Howard, a widely acclaimed Richmond, California quiltmaker.

Early life[edit]

Effie Mae Martin was born September 6, 1936 to a sharecropping family in southeastern Arkansas.[1][2]


Ms. Tompkins, who had helped her mother make quilts as a child, began to quilt seriously about 1980, while making a living as a practical nurse. She said she believed God directed her hand and her art. Her abstract, improvisational compositions often had a personal significance: one of her more well-known works, "Three Sixes," involves three relatives whose birthdays include the number 6.[1] Despite the fact that she was a deeply private person and rarely sold her quilts, her work was discovered by Eli Leon, an Oakland-based collector specializing in African-American quilts, and he featured it on the cover of the catalog for an exhibition he organized, Who'd A Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking, which debuted at the San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum in 1987 and traveled for several years. Tompkins' quilts were featured in a solo exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum (1997), at Peter Blum Gallery in New York City (2003), and at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont (2007). They were also included in the 2002 Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art and have been shown at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC; one image is available on their web site. In 2016, her quilts were featured in an exhibition of five quilt artists at the Oakland Museum of California.[3]

The curator of the Berkeley show, Lawrence Rinder, wrote: 'In front of Tompkins's work I feel that certain Modernist ambitions may in fact be achievable. Here are feelings of awe, elation, and sublimity; here is an absolute mastery of color, texture and composition; here is inventiveness and originality so palpable and intense 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.' [4] Critics were equal in their praise: 'Tompkins' textile art [works] ... demolish the category' [5] 'These quilts are works of such distinction and devotion that they supersede established art-historical categories, forcing reviewers to retreat to that dumbfounded admiration that attracted us to art in the first place'.[6]

Works pieced by Tompkins include Tents of Armageddon Four Patch (1986),[7] Three Sixes (1987), Half-Squares Put-Together (1988), Half-Squares Medallion (1986), Half-squares Four-patch (1986), and Put Together with Letter "F" (1985).[8]

Tompkins's quilts were not made from old clothes or other scraps but from fabrics she purchased for their textures and light-reflecting qualities, including velvet, fake fur, wool, silk and Lurex. She worked with the convention of the quilt block but with enormous variation in size, free distortions of shape and vivid color contrasts that have been described as "geometric anarchy" and "riotous mosaics." [9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Stewart, Jocelyn Y. (2006-12-11). "Rosie Lee Tompkins, 70; Quilter Dazzled, Mystified the Art World". The Washington Post. Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-08-14.
  2. ^ "Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936–2006) - Encyclopedia of Arkansas". Retrieved 2018-03-10.
  3. ^ "Yo-Yos & Half Squares: Contemporary California Quilts | Oakland Museum of California". Retrieved 2017-07-22.
  4. ^ Lawrence Rinder, 'Greatness Near at Hand,' in Rosie Lee Tompkins Berkeley: Berkeley Art Museum, 1997, p. 4
  5. ^ Roberta Smith, Art Guide, The New York Times, Nov. 29, 2002
  6. ^ Alison Bing, "Rosie Lee Tompkins at Anthony Meier Fine Arts." Artweek, November 2003, p.16-17
  7. ^ 1953-, Fichner-Rathus, Lois, (2012). Foundations of art and design (Enhanced media ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth. ISBN 1111771456. OCLC 670483666.
  8. ^ Bales, Judy, "Fractal Geometry in African American Quilt Traditions" (2009). Proceedings of the 4th Biennial Symposium of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum. 4.
  9. ^ Margalit Fox, "Rosie Lee Tompkins, African-American Quiltmaker, Dies at 70", The New York Times, Dec. 6, 2006

Further reading[edit]

  • Leon, Eli. Who'd A Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking, San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum, 1987
  • Rinder, Lawrence. Rosie Lee Tompkins, Berkeley Art Museum, 1997
  • Leon, Eli. Something Pertaining to God, Shelburne Art Museum, 2006
  • Koplos, Janet and Bruce Metcalf. Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, 2010, ISBN 978-0-8078-3413-8