The African American, California quilt maker, known as Rosie Lee Tompkins, always remained anonymous. The reclusive woman, who created the stunning quilts that hang today in museums and that were reproduced in art magazines, hid from the public. She was actually Effie Mae Martin Howard, an Arkansas-born mother, grandmother, and practical nurse who loved piecing quilts but who had no interest in public acclaim.
Tomkins, who had learned to quilt as a child, took up quilting again in midlife. Her quilts were not intended to function as bed covers but were art objects in their own right. Tompkins described her creative process as a mediative prayer, in which aesthetic and spiritual concerns prevailed.
In 1988, Tompkins’ work first appeared at the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum in the exhibition “Who’d a Thought It?” Her quilts won over the critics with their bold, rich colors and irregular edges, corners, and compositions. While some compared her quilts to modernist paintings, others saw Africa in her style and technique. Tomkins’ quilts were not made from old clothes but from fabrics she purchased to vary the texture in her works. She often used rich colors in velvet and velveteen along with broadcloth, poplin, polyester knit, cotton, flocked satin, silk batik, and wool jersey. It is her use of velvet which imbues her work with sensuous surfaces that are highly responsive to light.
Tompkins’ quilts were featured in magazines and exhibited in galleries and museums in Japan and throughout the United States, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. The Whitney showcased her quilts in its 2002 Biennial Exhibition and has one of her quilts in its permanent collection. Over 100 of her quilts and textile works have been given to the Eli Leon Collection at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.