Orange, yellow and purple are used to excellent effect in a “Three Sixes” quilt from 1999. (Courtesy Eli Leon Bequest)

Berkeley Art Museum shows Rosie Lee Tompkins’ brilliant quilts

Innovator brought new dimension to textile artistry

A thrilling exhibition of dozens of colorful, unconventional quilts by the late East Bay artist Rosie Lee Tompkins at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is a must-see, and not just for fans of textile art.

It’s somehow fitting, too, that it’s the final show curated by museum director Lawrence Rinder, who in March will leave the position he’s held since 2008.

At the Feb. 19 opening for “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective,” Rinder, who organized the show of 65 quilts with curatorial fellow Elaine Yau, said that when he first saw Tompkins’ creations at the Richmond Art Center in 1996, he was “blown away.”

“The works changed my idea of art and art history,” said Rinder, adding that the BAMPFA retrospective includes pieces from the collection of Eli Leon, an Oakland psychiatrist and African-American quilt scholar who, when he died in 2018, bequeathed to the museum some 3,000 quilts by African-American artists (which will be the subject of an exhibition slated for 2022).

Hundreds were made by Tompkins, who was born Effie Mae Howard in 1936 to a family of sharecroppers in Arkansas. Taught how to quilt by her mother, she came to the East Bay in the late 1950s.

Piecing together quilt tops using brightly hued material from thrift shops, Tompkins’ output took on new dimensions after she met Leon at a Marin County flea market. Yau said he saw her aesthetic genius, wanted to support her art and make her famous. An intensely private person, she took on the pseudonym, Leon’s invention, as a way for him to show her work and respect her wishes.

Two quilts at the exhibit’s opening illustrate Tompkins’ artistry, Rinder said, “giving an initial impression of jumble, but also of incredible consistency.” He pointed to one in which all of the pieces have floral patterned fabric, then the other, in which each piece is adorned with found embroidery.

Clever use of floral prints and embroidery are exemplified in this 1970s work. (Courtesy Eli Leon Bequest)

Other works reveal Tompkins’ finesse and fluidity with applique, embroidery and assemblage as well as her love of sparkle, glitter, the plushness of velvet and her sense of humor.

A glittering 1995 quilt has velvet, rhinestones, beads, satin and even angora sweater scraps. (Courtesy Eli Leon Bequest)

A room of “classic” Tompkins quilt tops from the 1980s — oddly sized, invoking an analogy to jazz — fill one room, while another section includes creations in orange, yellow and purple she called “Three Sixes,” which refer to birthdates of her family members that have the number six in them, including Sept. 6, 1936, her own birthday. (She died in 2006.)

A religious person, Tompkins embroidered phrases from the scripture in her quilts, as well as her name or those of family members.

In the 1990s, she included pictures; some of her works resemble photo collages. A notable piece evoking black masculinity has images of O.J. Simpson, Magic Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jordan, and the words “Effie, love and Michael” stitched on.

An evocative untitled quilt from the mid-1990s has images of O.J. Simpson, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. (Courtesy Eli Leon Bequest)

While Tompkins’ artworks clearly reveal her spirituality and connection to family, there remains little other documentation suggesting what she was thinking as she worked, alone, in the privacy of her living room.

Rinder, who visited her there once in the 1990s, said she told him she liked to quilt while listening to the soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever.”


Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective

Where: Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley

When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; closes July 19

Tickets: $14 general; free for ages 18 and under and first Thursdays

Contact: (510) 642-0808,

Museums and GalleriesVisual Arts

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