A Visit With Eli Leon And His Quilts ~ Part 2

Eli Leon's other collection

Eli Leon collects more than just quilts. His living room is a delightful tableau of color and nostalgia. His living room is also the quilt viewing room.  After bringing seven quilts –all he’s ever made from– from the basement, we hung them one-by-one along one end of the room from a row of heavy-duty clips using an antique step-ladder, then we sat back to enjoy the view.

Improvisational quilt by Eli LeonThis is Eli’s his first quilt! As you can see he was greatly influenced by improvisational style of the African-American quilts he collects. Don’t you love the glitter and the pop and the awesome modern color scheme?!

Improv quilt by Eli Leon - detail

Eli made most of the quilts below during a one week period in 1989 while he was waiting  to hear if he had received a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue the scholarship he started with the exhibition and catalog, Who’d a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking. I’ve interspersed Eli’s own quilts with excerpts from his catalogs about the improvisational process of the African-American quilt makers whose work he collected and exhibited.

improv quilt by Eli Leon

A classic quote from Eli’s first catalog –on making mistakes:

“Mistakes” may be acceptable, or not seen as mistakes at all but welcomed as an integral component of craftsmanship.  Wanda Jones says that when she was learning to quilt and would make a mistake, her mother would say, “It’s nothin’ about makin’ it a little different.  It’s still the same pattern.  You just added somethin’ of your own to it.” (Who’d a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking)

improv quilt by Eli Leon

On creating what I call the “rhythm of attention:”

West and Central African textile design often juxtaposes unlike motifs or interrupts orderly repetition by shifts in texture, direction, pattern or scale.  Improvisational African-American quiltmakers make particular use of borders to effect such improvisational juxtapositions and interruptions.  Willia Ette Graham, for example, added an odd border to a quilt in order to “make a little change.”  “I decided,” she said, “as I had this left over from another quilt, I’d put them together to pick your eye back up again.  If it’s just one thing, your sight is just flat, but if you put somethin’ in there to break that, well it’s kinda like flashing a light in your face in the dark.  And that’s the way I go with most of my quilts, tryin’ to match the pieces to where it don’t just keep your sight beared down on one thing.  You move on the see the next step.  You searchin’ for somethin’ else to see.” (Something Else to See: Improvisational Bordering Styles in African-American Quilts)

On making exceptions to the rules –something I try to teach in my Modern Block Improv workshops:

Practices such as measuring approximately, using scraps as found, incorporating accidents into the finished work and making frequent exceptions to whatever rules may have been established, are all aspects of a vision in which incidental contingencies, accepted as spontaneous offerings, are skillfully managed to contribute to the beauty and individuality of an artist’s work.  Accordingly, quiltmaker Laverne Brackens–an eloquent spokeswoman for improvisation–talks of “off-centering the centerpiece,” displaying odd selvages, turning printed stripes in different directions, stripping lengthwise and widthwise in the same quilt, enlarging blocks that are too small for the current need with long strips of fabric, and working out the pattern as she goes along, all to effect a “different look,” “change it up,” or “give that quilt a offset look.” (No Two Alike: African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern)

And possibly my favorite quote from one of Eli’s catalogs –on being fearless with design:

Nor are these improvisation-minded quiltmakers unaware of the power of their heterodox, scrap-bag productions.  “I’m going to be up to something real dangerous when I get through with this,” Arbie Williams joked to me.  This quilt done killed two people.” (Let It Shine: improvisation in African-American Star Quilts)

improv quilt by Eli Leon

Eli gleaned the materials for the quilts above from flea markets and thrift stores, but the memorial quilt below was made from Eli’s father’s clothes two years after his death.

memorial quilt made by Eli Leon

So sweet! I had a fantastic visit with Eli. He is such a unique person and a visionary curator and artist –completely devoted to the quilts he’s loved and collected for almost a half-century and to the quilt makers who made them. His work has altered the path of my life and I’m sure of many others. Thanks Eli!

Eli with his father's memorial quilt

Oh in case you are wondering –he won that Guggenheim!

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34 Responses to A Visit With Eli Leon And His Quilts ~ Part 2

  1. Ursula says:

    Love both, your heartfelf words about the trainride and the quilts. May you be blessd with a shoulder to lean on whenever you need one.

  2. deb rowden says:

    WHAT a treat! This is like a good dream, getting to see all this. thank you!

  3. Wonderful, Sherri Lynn!!!

    When I visited Eli’s Collection at his home…he showed me a small piece of patchwork that he was working on to try and create a quilt top… He was discouraged that he just couldn’t seem get it to look right …I advised him to relax and not be so uptight about his piecing and that it didn’t really matter about how long it took him to do it….just enjoy the process….looks like he did just that. These quilts are wonderful…I am so proud of Eli. He really does put his all into everything he sets out to do. Sometimes his lack of confidence slows him down, but eventually he meets the challenge head on and accomplishes something amazing ….like these wonderful artworks. I also ran across some of his psychedelic posters that he created in the l960’s. They were amazing too.

    Sherry Ann

  4. very nicely put together

    I was lucky to be there

    • sherrilynn says:

      Your quilts are beautiful Margaret. Thank you. You must be Eli’s friend. He said he was showing his work to a friend who made quilts from the Indian and African-American traditions.

  5. Beautiful, as always.

  6. Beautiful, as always!

  7. Eli Leon says:

    Thank you!

  8. Roland says:

    Amazing quilts. They’re like paintings with cloth, and the images seem to dance. It must be quite a job dusting all those tins and figures!

  9. Barb says:

    Wow! Thanks for this. You are living the dream.. thanks for writing about it.

  10. Isabelle says:

    Wonderful inspiring posts, Sherri. I had seen Eli’s quilts and collection on flickr and admired them a lot. Now reading more about the artist and his work is very enlightening. I am thankful that you shared images and thoughts. African-American quilts have always been meaningful to me, history, heritage, lives brought alive on such quilts. Precious indeed.

  11. Thanks for sharing this Sherri. After your previous post, i did a little research and found all those wonderful quotes you included. Such a feast. I love the philosophy of these wonderful quilters. I am so inspired.

  12. Kim says:

    This is great. Just great. Thanks for introducing me to Mr. Leon. I’d love to see that exhibition. It would attract an inspire a whole new generation if it toured today.

  13. Kristin L says:

    Thanks for these posts. Eli has made a great contribution to the quilt world through his curation and bringing to the fore so many wonderful quilts and their makers. I’d love someday to be able to say one of my quilts “done killed two people.” What a great, irreverent, way to approach making.

  14. Brenda says:

    Thank you so much for sharing Eli’s quilts and his amazing story.

  15. Thank you so much for sharing this lovely post about Eli and all of his quilts. I loved all of the photos of quilts, of course, but the quotes make it so much more meaningful! Just lovely!

  16. Inspirational and insightful post. My personal favorite: second quilt. There is lots to learn from Eli and his research.

  17. Heather says:

    Oh, such juicy, inspiring work. Thanks so much for sharing.

  18. Sheila says:

    Once again, thank you so much for sharing this Sherri! What a treat! :)

  19. LeeAnn says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your visit and including some of his quotes! I hope he’s aware of how much he’s given to all of us who want to do something different with our quilt-making.

  20. Jodi says:

    This second post was worth waiting for! What a unique experience to see and reflect on his work. Both of you are so inspiring. The thread of modernism in quilting is so fascinating. I find myself torn between reading more about the history of modern quilting and wanting to make more quilts of my own. Quilt-time-management!

  21. Julierose says:

    A big thank you for sharing these wonderous quilts with us! I love them! So unique–I am trying very hard to let go and improvise…and leave my “mistakes” in there–they really “are” who I am after all. No precision piecer “I”. For sure!! Am trying the Medallion setting (after trying to follow instructions on a hard block–and chopping off points all over it!!) Am having to “tear” fabric and use scissors–I injured my right arm and shoulder rotary cutting! Hugs Julierose

  22. Cleta says:

    Sherri, Thanks for sharing these, they are beautiful. I agree with John’s statement. You have really encouraged me and my quilt making adventure. Blessings,

  23. patty says:

    Amazing work! Makes me want to get into the studio and start creating!

  24. Susan K says:

    Very inspirational. Thanks for sharing. I know I’ll be looking back at these quilts as I make some of my own.

  25. Chandra says:

    Thank you so much for sharing Eli’s amazing quilts! I think I will have a cup of tea and go do something dangerous too.

  26. john wiercioch says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this Sherri! Eli and his collection and insightful curating before many cared about such works (beyond the makers) are wonderful to behold! I think it’s also very telling that even though there were hundreds of quilts to see, and he obviously is very immersed in his collecting, YOU got him to pull HIS work from the basement and put it up, so you both could review and savor it. Clearly, you have a special gift for encouraging people–not only to appreciate life, but also to recognize and acknowledge their own specialness. You not only share your glow, you use your Light to increase the glow within others. Beautiful in every way. Thank you!

  27. Marit says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these unique creations from a generous creator. Lots to enjoy, to learn and to think about…

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