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Rosie Lee Tompkins, 70; Quilter Dazzled, Mystified the Art World

By Jocelyn Y. Stewart
Los Angeles Times
Monday, December 11, 2006

Rosie Lee Tompkins, 70, whose quilts hung in museums, graced the pages of art magazines and left awestruck critics scrambling to describe them, died Dec. 1 at her home in Richmond, Calif. No cause of death was reported.

Critics compared her work to modernist paintings, jazz music and African textiles. They marveled at the quilts' "tactile allure" and their "mutating geometries full of mystery and life."

In a 2003 article, Artweek critic Alison Bing wrote: "These quilts are works of such distinction and devotion that they supersede established art-historical categories, forcing reviewers to retreat to that dumbfounded admiration that attracted us to art in the first place."

For all that was said and understood about Ms. Tompkins's work, little was known of her personal life.

If she had chosen to do so, Ms. Tompkins could have dropped in on museum openings and mingled without anyone noticing that the artist had arrived. Only four people in the art world even knew what she looked like.

And that was just the way Ms. Tompkins wanted it.

From the beginning of her career in the 1980s until her death, she remained an anonymous artist.

She was born Effie Mae Howard on Sept. 6, 1936, to a sharecropping family in Arkansas. She was married and divorced twice, raised five children and once had a career as a practical nurse in convalescent homes.

Eli Leon, a quilt scholar, was her conduit to the art world. The New York-born collector had turned his attention to quilts and was searching for those made by African Americans, a fact he made known to Ms. Tompkins when he chanced upon her at a Marin County, Calif., flea market in the mid-1980s.

When Leon visited her house to view her work, he said he was "completely and utterly flabbergasted." That visit marked the beginning of a long friendship and professional relationship in which Leon shepherded her work to museums and galleries.

In 1988, Ms. Tompkins's work first appeared in public at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art in an exhibition, "Who'd a Thought It?," curated by Leon. Shortly before the opening, Ms. Tompkins expressed her desire to remain anonymous, which sparked an eleventh-hour dash to recall printed material and a decision to use a pseudonym.

She would not give interviews or allow herself to be tape-recorded, photographed or quoted.

For Ms. Tompkins, piecing together quilts was an act of communion with God. She said she believed God directed her hand and her art. Each quilt was the result of a prayer prayed on behalf of a loved one. One of her more well-known works, "Three Sixes," involves three relatives whose birthdays include the number 6.

That first show -- "Who'd a Thought It?" -- was mounted in 28 venues, including the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution and the American Craft Museum in New York.

In the years that followed, her work was featured in magazines and exhibited at university galleries and prestigious museums throughout the nation, including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which included her quilts in its 2002 Biennial Exhibition and has one in its collection.

At some point, Leon learned that Ms. Tompkins had experienced a nervous breakdown in the late 1970s. She still heard voices, believed her phone was tapped and felt that she was always being watched.

One daughter preceded her in death. Ms. Tompkins is survived by her mother, two sons, a stepson, a stepdaughter and several sisters and brothers.

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