Quilt heroes

My first quilt was a trip around the world lap quilt. I was asked to fill in as an instructor for a class and thought I should make the quilt before attempting to teach others. Why me? I do not know. Desperation, maybe. I was a long-time sewer at that point, but I had never made a quilt. I was probably a lousy teacher, but I hope that my enthusiasm and encouragement made up for my complete lack of knowledge. My second quilt was also a trip around the world quilt for my boyfriend. It was queen-sized, and I appliqued his name into the border. I went all out for quilt number two, and he was suitably impressed. Looking back, I see it was a turning point in my life as a sewist. Quilts became my primary focus and have been for a long time. I’ve taken many classes and tried all kinds of techniques making many traditional and non-traditional quilt patterns. 

Fast forward about five years, and I started making the quilts that I think of as my quilts. Pieced strip quilts combined with black sashing. The first quilts used every color. Then I did color themes, like blue and green and red and green. Fast forward again, and now my quilts don’t always have black sashing–and sometimes I forego the sashing altogether, especially in my small quilts. I have been experimenting with a close-to-zero waste strategy, sewing tiny bits together to make strips. 

This use-what-you-have strategy connects me to generations of quilters who created quilts for warmth out of what they had. Many quilts are utilitarian, but an extraordinary number of quilts are also works of art. Needle arts were one of the few creative outlets for generations of women, and quilting is now an art form dominated by women.

Last year, I read about an incredible bequest of 3,000+ quilts from the estate of quilt collector Eli Leon. Honestly, I tried to picture having a 3,000 quilt collection in my home. I told my husband I was willing to try it. 😉 Leon built a temperature-controlled addition to house much of his collection. He studied and collected quilts made by African American quilters, and supported and championed the work of quilters like Rosie Lee Tompkins.

Rosie Lee Tompkins is a pseudonym for Effie May Howard. Howard was an extremely private person and sought to remain unknown. Eli Leon suggested that Howard use the name Rosie Lee Tomkins when exhibiting her work. 

Leon donated his quilt collection, the largest private collection of African American quilts, to the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).

Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective is currently on exhibit at BAMPFA. Covid-19 has closed down museums worldwide, but the shutdown has inspired many great online museum tours like this one, led by Chief Curator Larry Rinder. 

Tompkins quilts have power and movement, bold colors, whimsical motifs, and unexpected fabrics. She could transform a controlled geometric pattern into something organic, transforming traditional designs and techniques into modern art. Her color combinations glow and pulse. I’ve been thinking about what she might have wanted people to feel when they saw her work: Joy. Energy. Power. Faith. Happiness. 
Read more about the exhibition in this review by Roberta Smith in the New York Times.


Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

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