By Lou Fancher
Lawrence Rinder will never forget the week he and Elaine Yau spent full days buried in quilts and other textile artwork in a commercial storage facility in Oakland.
Exploring with co-curator Yau hundreds of quilts and other artwork by Rosie Lee Tompkins, the pseudonym of Richmond quilter Effie Mae Howard (1936-2006), the UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive director and chief curator said in an interview, was astonishing.
"We'd pull out the work from the collection and just gasp," he said. "It was incredibly moving. We were looking at things that have never been shown publicly."
As of Feb. 19, that will change. Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective, features approximately 80 pieces from the collection of over 500 bequeathed to BAMPFA in 2019 by Eli Leon. The late Oakland psychologist and collector/scholar of African-American quilts met Tompkins in 1985 and facilitated a solo exhibition of her work at BAMPFA in 1997. Rinder "caught the fever" for Tompkins' artwork at that time and became a champion, exhibiting the Arkansas-born artist's quilts in a 2002 Whitney Biennial that culminated in a landmark exhibition of The Quilts of Gee's Bend at the same museum.
"I met her twice," Rinder recalled. "The first time was when I was preparing the exhibition for the museum in 1997. I asked Eli if I could meet her. He said she was very private, didn't like to meet people. But he asked her, and she agreed, so we went to her home. We sat in her living room. She was warm and lovely."
The second outing was more fraught with tension. Agreeing to introduce her to art historian Robert Farris Thompson, a leading Africanist who had written about her work (Flash of the Spirit), Thompson flew out to the Bay Area. "We went to her door, and she said, no, she'd changed her mind. She was intensely private. Eventually, she said yes. I don't know if she was shy, but once she agreed to see you, she couldn't have been nicer. We had a great meeting in the end."
There is nothing shy about the quilts Tompkins began to produce in the 1980s. Having learned quilting from her mother during childhood, Tompkins abandoned the practice for decades. When she resumed quilting, she created multilayered pieces recognizable for their bold, prismatic coloration and irregular geometric forms and iconic patterns including half-squares, medallions, and yo-yos. Embroidered words, Christian scriptures, printed images and portraits, T-shirts, and recycled fabrics merge with velvet, artificial fur, and glittery material in her quilts. Reflecting her deep religious faith, quilt-making was a form of worship, the resulting artwork often intended to protect specific family members or declare the significance of United States history, figures, or issues.
The wavering lines and shimmering depth of velvet and velveteen in String (1985) capture a fundamental flow, a life energy that taps into a universe of red color and pours forth, carrying along in its surging red ribbons flashes of blue, gold, gray, and black. Rinder called it "beguiling," and said, "I've been looking at this piece for 20 years. It's one of the classic artworks of the 20th century: There's grace, gravity, appealing colors, harmony, and surprise. It's hard to refer to it without sounding overblown."
The indigo blue and black medallion at the center of Untitled 1986 anchors a quilt whose varied, appliqué and corner block border pulses with kinetic power. It's hard to imagine a more dramatic expression in contrast and yet, intertwined and connected by black borders, the work projects joy and tragedy coexisting in art — and in our lives.
Other quilts are equally provocative: Untitled 2003 appears to be made of neckties. The 42-inch-by-38-inch piece with its jostled Stonehenge-like columns tilting and skewed carries a jazzy musicality, as if improvising on a riff of solid and patterned masculinity.
Three quilts bearing the same title, Untitled 1996, leave less doubt as to their subjects. First comes an eclectic compilation with images of Christ, dancers, kitschy poodles, and fragments of an American flag and Hawaiian textiles. The melting pot of embroidery and fabrics — silk bath, velour, cotton feed sack, acrylic, rayon, and more — speaks to the diversity of culture and history in the United States. The second quilt with American flag fragments includes hyper realistic images of Robert F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. The juxtaposition establishes race relations in America as a theme, although Tompkins' intentions remain for viewers to decide.
The third quilt establishes a mixed message: African-American athletes are powerful, successful men but uniquely vulnerable to racism, homophobia, and other societal bias. Religious crosses and embroidered numbers become either restrictive boundaries or protective borders — or both — and Lakers and Chicago Bulls basketball logos combine with no-doubt text surrounding pictures of Magic Johnson, O.J. Simpson, Malcolm X, King, and other celebrity or thought leaders. The statements in all-caps include "Strong men keep on coming," and "Who framed O.J. Simpson?" Rinder said, "It's obviously not just random pieces."
Also in the exhibit are quilted tops and a selection of rare bottle sculptures. A 19th century Southeastern practice of decorating bottles explains the latter's origin, although Rinder said he was unsure if the 3-D pieces were memorials or designed for other purpose. Like the 2-D quilts in which materials like velvet offer sink-your-finger dimensionality and embroidered fabric puckers with spring-forth vigor, the intense materiality of the work conveys tactile joy Tompkins appeared to find in her craft.
"When I look at her art, I see a spiritual power," Rinder said. "In the abstract works, I feel a connection to the divine, but that's personal. I know she did see these pieces as being the gift of god. She embroidered scripture onto some quilts, so that's explicit [spiritual] information. Along with the names of her children and ancestors, it's interesting to see the balance between personal and biblical allusions in the text."
Rinder said the significance of the gift of 3,000 African-American quilts to BAM can hardly be overstated. The Leon collection includes extraordinary work by Tompkins, Laverne Brackens, Gladys Henry, Sherry Byrd, Willia Ette Graham, Arbie Williams, and others. "I believe this donation will impact this institution for 100 years," he predicted. There'll be people investigating cross-cultural history, textile practices. Opportunities for students to learn are enormous. I'd love it if the collection would become a convening opportunity for the community." To ease America into awareness and appreciation of its diversity, Rinder hopes that after his departure, the collection grows, receives a robust framework of outreach programs, and "stands for something."
When, and if it does, Rinder will be applauding from Ukiah, on property he owns in Northern California where he intends to complete a novel he is writing. The next chapter at BAMPFA, he said, is in the hands of the new director, expected to come onboard no later than June 2020.
Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective, Feb. 19-July 19, BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, www.BAMPFA.org.
Untitled 1996 (detail) by quilt artist Rosie Lee Tompkins. Photo by Sharon Risedorph.