Quilts with divine inspiration

An exhibition at the Shelburne Museum near Burlington, Vt., through Oct. 28, explores the works of African-American quiltmaker Rosie Lee Tompkins.

Born into a family of sharecroppers in 1936, Rosie Lee Tompkins started out picking cotton in Arkansas and ended up rocking the art world with quilts she felt were designed by God.

Like the Gee's Bend, Ala., quiltmakers and other African-American patchworkers, Ms. Tompkins used joyful colors, bold contrast, and variation of pattern and scale. But she took the African-American quilting tradition, which has an improvisational style some argue has roots in African art – to heavenly heights. One cannot stand before a group of her highly original quilts without feeling awe.

Included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2002 show in New York, Tompkins's quilts have erased the line between craft and art. Major critics around the country have raved about the work of the Richmond, Calif., artist, who died in 2006.

Shelburne Museum near Burlington, Vt., is hosting Tompkins's second solo museum show. (The first was at California's Berkeley Art Museum in 1997.) The exhibition, "Something Pertaining to God," features 43 pieces, about 30 of which have never been on public display. Besides the quilts, it includes a dress and chair covers made of neckties, jeweled pillows, and other inventive patchworks illustrating the diversity and originality that sprang from Tompkins's creative genius.

Collector Eli Leon met Tompkins at a flea market in Oakland, Calif., in 1985, where she was selling household goods. When Mr. Leon asked her if she knew any quiltmakers, she admitted she was one. Having gone through a personal crisis that turned her even more deeply to her faith, Tompkins had begun to piece quilts again, as she had done with her mother when growing up.

He became a strong supporter and began buying Tompkins's quilts, but he could never convince the self-effacing woman of her stature as an artist. She insisted she was nobody special. Although sometimes in awe of her finished work, she gave all the credit to God.

As she began to be acclaimed, Tompkins insisted on retaining her privacy – to the point where some questioned whether there was such a person, and it was rumored that the quilts had been made by Leon. She even hid her real name, Effie Mae Howard, behind the pseudonym Rosie Lee Tompkins.

She considered making quilts acts of worship. Her later work contains explicit symbols of her faith – embroidered crosses and Bible verses. But soulful qualities breathe through all her quilts. They are radiant, alive, fresh, and surprising.

At first glance it might look as though the quilts lack order, which is so prominent in traditional American quilts. But if you look closely, you can see patterns.

A good example of this is "Three Sixes" (bottom right), quilted with three relatives in mind, each of whom had a six in her birth date. Pieced in yellow, orange, and purple – a combination she loved – it's made with strips of six rectangles each. The variableness that animates the design includes the strips' varying widths and the changing scale of the rectangles. They express a lively interplay of order and spontaneity.

The most telling way Tompkins's quilts mirror the divine is in the powerful effect they can have on people. Leon was told of a woman who came to one of his shows day after day and stood before "String" (top right) with tears running down her face. It's not hard to imagine. The 86-by-100-inch quilt is made of richly textured velvets and velveteens. Ribbons of red, blue, and purple cascade down its length to end in gentle curves, suggesting an outpouring of spirit, an avalanche of love.

The longer one looks at these quilts, the more one sees in them. "Put-Together" (1986) has enough going on geometrically to keep the museumgoer occupied until ushered out for the day. But if you keep looking and the light is right, you can see a few minuscule sequins sprinkled near the center – a reward for your attention. A bit like answered prayer.

[Editor's note: The original subhead misstated when the exhibition ends.]

The exhibit runs through Oct. 28. For more information, call (802) 985-3346 or visit www.shelburnemuseum.org .

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