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BERKELEY, Calif. — The artworks of Rosie Lee Tompkins, born Effie Mae Howard, defy easy definitions. Her quilts are at turns abstract beauties, political statements, faith-based texts, and textile craft. She was known for employing cryptic symbols including crosses and “yo-yo’s,” and until her death in 2006, Tompkins rarely spoke publicly of her work, having an intense desire to stay out of the limelight. She turned away countless interviews and appearances even as her exhibitions began to garner fame and critical acclaim in the mid-1980s.
Even the pseudonym “Tompkins” was adopted to afford Howard privacy. One of 15 half-siblings in a family of sharecroppers, Tompkins, who was born in 1936, emigrated from the daily terrors oppressing Black Americans in the South at the age of twenty-two. In a Great Migration story that spanned the Jim Crow South of Arkansas to a nursing career and a family of her own based in Richmond, California, Tompkins fashioned herself as a working artist. She advertised on business cards as the maker of “crazy quilts and pillows.” (Crazy quilts are a recognized type of quilt that forego the careful geometry of traditional quilts in favor of irregular patterns and fabrics.) Beyond this biography, her story remains as enigmatic as her work.
At the UC Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Archive (BAMPFA), the largest exhibition of Tompkins’s work to date is now available virtually. I visited BAMPFA in person, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the nation, and had a long conversation with co-curator Elaine Y. Yau who shared her extensive research on the artist’s life and work. In the presence of Tompkins’s genius, I experienced awe.
Tompkins had no attachment to the quilt as utilitarian blanket. Often, she worked exclusively on the surface of the quilt, where she patterned and pieced her design schemes, leaving the finishing, including the backing and routine construction, in the hands of paid workers. With a medium that promises comfort, Tompkins’s quilts disorient the senses. At BAMPFA, onlookers could pivot from four-foot wide pieces only to be engulfed by 10-foot-plus sized fabrics. She pulls her visitors’ eyes through color palettes that flow wildly from psychedelic oranges to spotlight yellow to outer space. “I think it’s because I love them so much that God let me see all these different colors,” Tompkins famously said.
She punctuated many of her pieces with color contrasts, using black to introduce a sensation of loss or distance. Not the loss associated with death per se, but rather an unmooring from the body, a sensation of mind or soul floating in space. “The orange is me,” she once said in reference to a 1994 quilt that features a collection of black squares framed by orange, one square in the upper right-hand corner disintegrating — a deconstructed and eerie identification.
One of her rare figurative quilts reveals how Tompkins was unafraid to stand up for her communities. The quilt, made in 1996, prominently features Black celebrities, incorporating images of Magic Johnson, OJ Simpson, and leaders such as Elijah Mohammed, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X, as well as a print reading “It’s a Black Thing/ You Must Understand.” In one corner, she appliqués a cross commemorating Michael Jordan with the word “love.” I believe that Tompkins would very much be down for the #BlackLivesMatter movement of today.
Tompkins developed an expansive and deeply personal cosmology. She possessed an idiosyncratic numerology, repetitively stitching her own birth date (“9-6-36”), or the birth dates of loved ones in several places. The number six emerges as a pattern. She scattered crosses and Bible verses throughout quilts (many of which also include the number six). One favorite was John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Even Tompkins’s clear embrace of her Christian roots was complex. As her son Sammy Howard said, “She was very religious, but not in a hellfire and brimstone way. It was more spiritual than anything, very faithful to the Good Lord, to the Creator. There was just a feel to mankind. She was really generous, devoted to family.” She was a regular churchgoer, yet Tompkins didn’t emphasize devotional scenes. Instead, her images hearken to a fractured inner world.
Her lines are rarely straight; her geometric preference is disruption. She applied half-squares as well as assorted textural components (velvet, yarned tassels, glittery scraps, cotton, appliquéd shapes, odds and ends) in such a way as to evade the usual grid. From her quilts, visitors can glimpse warped and shifting windows, leading perhaps to God or some other state. This sense of instability, the untethering from the physical plane, that her art demands, is a testament to Tompkins’s ability to describe a relationship with faith and self.
Rosie Lee Tompkins is an artist who practiced meditation as quilting, who speaks directly to the current chaotic world of stay-at-home orders and social distance, our yearning for meaning. Tompkins elicits emotion by stripping away casual relationships in favor of intensity. In her quilts, what is at first a simple box whirls into a portal, in a beyond, opening up a space past the body and into a great, existential distance.
Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospectiveis organized by Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder and Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Elaine Y. Yau, with Curatorial Assistant Lucia Olubunmi Momoh. The exhibition continues at the Berkeley Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) (2155 Center St, Berkeley, Calif.) through December 20. The museum is currently closed due to COVID-19. You can see the works from the exhibition online and in a virtual tour.