This month, the American art world is mourning the passing of Rosie Lee Tompkins, an artist whose imagination and eccentricities can be found in both her work and private life.
Critics revere Tomkins’ use of dazzling color and geometric forms in the hundreds of quilts on display in museums around the United States. Quilts – which are considered to be a uniquely American art form – are coverlets usually made of a top and bottom layer of material filled in between with down, wool or cotton. The top and bottom sheathes can be made of various types of material stitched together, forming a variety of patterns. Traditional quilts – usually added to the top of beds – are made of cotton. Tomkins’, however, included feed sacks, rayon, silk, fake fur, and other materials.
One New York Times reviewer called the quilts “Unerring and intuitive in their sense of color, shape and scale, …. formidably joyful visual events that ignore the usual boundaries between cultures, histories and mediums.”
The Times continues, “Made of massed, vivid patches, they exude a barely controlled geometric anarchy. Stripes can be thrillingly off kilter. Patterns shift and fracture. The result, riotous mosaics in cloth, has been likened by critics to Modernist painting.”
Tompkins’ high degree of professionalism is also echoed by quilt scholar and long-time friend Eli Leon. He said, “Many African-American quilt makers make things up as they go along, (but) she was the top of the line….”
Many never knew the real woman behind the art. Her professional name was a pseudonym for the Effie Mae Howard, a nurse practitioner. As artist Rosie Lee Tompkins, she never attended her own exhibits, nor did she court the public and critics. Leon describes her as an extremely private person. “Nobody knew who she was as Rosie Lee Tompkins. She of course knew people in her other life, mostly her family, under her real name.”
Some assume that the critical praise must have brought with it great wealth. But according to Leon, “I was the only person she would sell things to…I sold very (few) of her things.” He adds that Tompkins only benefited from the profits that he made from reselling her craftwork.
He says the description of her by some as a hermit, a recluse, is also wrong: “Those words don’t really describe her. She was friendly and sociable and sweet, never grouchy, … the best person at saying ‘no’ and turning down a lot of things without getting cranky...”
Leon dismisses the assumption by some that Tompkins did not appreciate her own work – which she never signed. “That wasn’t true,” he said. “She much enjoyed having her works published and exhibited, as long as we didn’t use her name.” She said God designed the quilts, and guided her hands.
However, Leon says Tompkins was in a tremendous amount of pain, both mental and physical, which made life difficult for her. “She was suffering too much…she welcomed dying…and she prayed for Jesus to come and take her away.”
Tompkins was 70 years old.
Her works are currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Oakland Museum in California. A one-woman show at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont opens from May to October.
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