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In a word
THE WOMAN BEHIND THE QUILTS
Who was Effie Mae Howard? The woman behind the pseudonym Rosie Lee
Tompkins (1936-2006) was a well-known African-American quilter who rose to become one of the most important modern American artists of our time. Tompkins' quilts were exhibited at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, New York and subsequently acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Oakland Museum, California, and private collections. A stellar solo show later that year at the Peter Blum Gallery, New York was hailed with enthusiasm by major art critics. “These quilts are works of such distinction and devotion,” Artweek critic Alison Bing wrote, “they supersede established art-historical categories, forcing reviewers to retreat to that dumbfounded admiration that attracted us to art in the first place.” “Writers have compared Tompkins,” said New Yorker reviewer Andrea Scott, “to canonical bigwigs like Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, and Alfred Jensen. But for all their affinities with modernist paintings, her quilts have a tactile allure and wobbly ecstasy unmatched by any canvas.” “Resolutely non-referential,” said Art in America critic, Eleanor Heartney, “Tompkins’ quilts bring to mind the efforts of early American modernists to forge a language of pure abstraction. That she does so with scraps of cloth instead of paint in no way diminishes her achievement.” Effie Mae Howard (Rosie Lee Tompkins) was intensely private. Lauded
The quilts are works of distinction and devotion...
with such critical praise, one would think she courted publicity or even sales, but for over twenty years Eli Leon, a quilt scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, and collector, had been her only conduit to the outside world. Although she had given quilts to family members and friends, most she kept for herself. At the time of her death, hundreds of patchworks and embroidered objects remained in her home, many still in progress. She allowed her quilts to leave her hands only when family situations necessitated the sale and even then only to her trusted co-conspirator, Leon. As the artist “Rosie Lee Tompkins”, she met only three people: curator Lawrence Rinder, Africanist Robert Farris Thompson, and historian Glenna Matthews. Effie Mae Howard was born in Arkansas to a sharecropping family for whom church, the land, and quilting held equal importance. In a large family with fourteen younger half-siblings, her childhood was spent picking cotton, helping her mother with chores, and piecing quilts. Howard moved to California in 1958 and lived with her family in Richmond until she died on December 1, 2006. Undeterred by her lack of a high school diploma, she enrolled in adult education classes and pursued nursing. Naturally friendly and outgoing, she enjoyed her job as a nurse in convalescent homes until the 1970s. She married twice and raised five children and stepchildren. During this period of intensely active family life, she did little or no patchwork. According to Leon, Howard had a nervous breakdown in the late 1970s. Hearing voices and believing her phone was tapped, she deeply craved peace