The African American, California quilt maker, known as Rosie Lee Tompkins, always remained anonymous. She was actually Effie Mae Martin Howard, an Arkansas-born mother, grandmother, and practical nurse who loved piecing quilts. This reclusive woman, who hid from the public and who had no interest in public acclaim, created the stunning quilts, that were reproduced in art magazines and shown in major museums. Her use of rich colors, irregular shapes (cutting squares freehand and never using a template), generous use of black, and wide variety of fabrics made her an exemplar of African American improvisational quilt-making.
Tomkins grew up the eldest of 15 siblings and half siblings, picking cotton and piecing together quilts for her mother. She functioned as a kind of apprentice for her mother in a small town where female friends and relatives would quilt and share techniques with one another. She studied nursing and worked in convalescent homes for years, raising five children and stepchildren as a single parent.
She 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 also incorporated distressed T-shirts and fabrics printed with the faces of Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedy brothers, or Magic Johnson. One of her narrative works was 14 feet across with folkloric scenes, pieces of the American flag, fabrics of dancers, and a portrait of Jesus and his Sacred Heart. It almost resembled a street mural. She would sign nearly everything with her real name, Effie, or a combination of Effie Mae Martin Howard and often added important dates such as the birth dates of her sons or her parents.
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, which is showcasing the largest exhibition of her work, “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective,” through December 20, 2020.