Talking Quilts with Eli Leon ~ Rosie Lee Tompkins

Eli Leon surprised me with this amazing quilt by Rosie Lee Tompkins. He has over a hundred quilts by Rosie Lee and considers this to be one of her best – AND it has never been published. This is an exclusive so please pass the word around to your quilting buds!

The first thing I notice and love about this bed sized quilt is the rich intensity of the velvet and the way it deeply absorbs color and reflects light. This dark quilt sparkles!

We both comment on the way light shines and pops out of the darkness. The light blue velvet combined with the pillow ticking in the top right corner is so unexpected –almost like a patch of sky peaking through the rust/purple/green triadic colors of an autum canopy.

Rosie Lee is confident in the way she patches together large expanses of dark values with only slight shifts of intensity. Personally I shy away from doing such a thing, afraid that my patterns will get lost. Yet the rich field of darkness she creates becomes a ground for her bold bright patches to stand fearlessly.

Eli points to the “huge number of changes in stuff that is very similar.” For instance, some of the triangular “half squares” as Eli calls them, vary in size tremendously. Sometimes the scale shifts from section to section, and in the light blue section, for example, there are scale shifts within the section.

Rosie Lee has created floating sections within floating sections. There is a sense that the microcosm gets bigger as the pattern of sections within sections repeats –almost spiraling. It’s simply beautiful. It’s fractal.

Rosie Lee Tomkins Quilt from Eli Leon's African-American collection - improviational patchwork

Personally I have a difficult time sewing with triangles, because they are so pointy, I don’t feel very free with them and they usually come off stiff and precise. In Rosie Lee’s hands they are fluid. Lots of times the points of her triangles are cut off by seams. They fragment like the reflected light of a jewel.

We notice that there is a single “border” at the top.  It’s clear that the quilt is made in sections but it is difficult to determine the actual construction sequence. This is due to the way Rosie Lee bleeds colors from one section to the next.

I love Eli’s enthusiasm for a beautiful quilt, “Something I just noticed for the first time…

Rosie Lee Tomkins Quilt from Eli Leon's African-American collection - improviational patchwork

I like almost a million things about the quilt. It’s that I just feel so great when I’m passing that (the dark-blue bleeds in the light blue section)– when I’m looking up there and see that, even if I don’t recognise that its both this or that, it just turns me on, and that’s been happening with a million things here.

We both agree that there are parts of this quilt that look three dimensional. Eli points out how Rosie Lee will add completely unexpected fabrics to the quilt like the leopard print at the bottom left center, or this very busy print in the top middle –one-of-a-kind elements in contrast to the mostly solid fabrics used through out, that never-the-less blend effortlessly with the whole. I declare that I would never feel free to that and Eli says, “Yes but it works beautifully!”

I ask Eli about Rosie Lee’s personality, “Was she confident?” He says she was more than confident. She never looked for help or approval with her quilts. However she was also a critic of her own work. She could pick out her best, the ones that were “perfect” and others that she thought could be better.

In the end the thing that makes this quilt so extraordinary is the sense I get that it seems chaotic yet feels completely ordered. Eli didn’t see anything chaotic about it but could see what I meant. He declares it “fabulously ordered.”

When asked about her process Rosie Lee said she could picture the outcome before she began. I’d say she was a master at communicating her rhythm of attention.

Rosie Lee Tomkins Quilt from Eli Leon's African-American collection - improviational patchwork

If you would like to hear our actual conversation here it is!


So what do you see? Please join the conversation! Check out the archive Talking Quilts with Eli Leon for more exclusive insights on improvisational quilts from Eli’s extensive African-American collection.

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33 Responses to Talking Quilts with Eli Leon ~ Rosie Lee Tompkins

  1. L. Jones-Hodge says:

    I love Mrs. Tompkins quilts. I like that she quilted what she felt not what is dictated by the expected. The only way to do tops like these is to be God inspired.
    I like the quilts that people make from patterns but, I don’t usually follow a pattern and my quilts are beautiful. And, I quilt my own, by hand. I do big stitch most of the time. When I finish the one I’m working on I’ll send a photo if you like.
    I have several tops made that, I need to put together and quilt. The Piecing is easy. It’s the quilting that takes a while if it’s hand done. Machine quilting is pretty but, I think something is lost in it. To me it takes away the personality of the quilt. And all quilts have their own personality. I’m glad to find this blog. I’ve enjoyed all the comments.
    Lorij, B.A.Quilter

    • sherrilynn says:

      I would love to see some of your quilts Lorij. Just send me pictures by email. Maybe the next time I come to Durham we can visit. I agree that Mrs. Tomkin’s quilts are God inspired. And I feel exactly the same way about machine quilting. I like the way you put it that it takes away the personality. Thanks!

  2. Mary P says:

    Just stunning. Every time I look at it I see something different, some new pattern or detail. That to me is the best art–where it continues to give time after time. Incredible work and what an incredible woman.

  3. Kristin L says:

    That velvet is so rich and inviting (of course, the color adds to that feeling too). I want to roll around on this quilt!

  4. LeeAnn says:

    Very inspiring. Thank you!!

  5. Amanda says:

    I really love this article. I am so glad you shared this wonderful discussion of a stunning quilt. It enriches my life.

  6. Heather says:

    I found her obit here:
    I love how she says the hand of God guided her work.

    • sherrilynn says:

      Thanks for sharing this Heather. And I’m sure Eli would love to do a book of her work, and we would all love to see it, of course there are a lot of forces involved in getting a real live book published. Still who knows… maybe someday.

  7. Heather says:

    What an exhilarating work of art! Eli, have you thought about doing a book of her quilts? It would be so amazing.

  8. Wade says:

    It’s kinda like Jacob Lawrence’s art nobody could master the simplicity of shape and color,but the artist. What a gift

  9. Stacey says:

    Thank you, Sherri! The audio is such a good idea. How I wish there was a volume of Rosie’s 100+ quilts. That would be SO fabulous!

  10. Erika says:

    Augh, this quilt is so amazing. So intensely SATISFYING to the eye. Everywhere dense and bright enough.

    Thanks to both of you so much for this incredible resource.

  11. debby says:

    I really love the shift in scale, and also the areas of low contrast, and want to incorporate more of that in my work. Thanks for sharing the inspiration.

  12. Chesley says:

    She is one of my favorite inspirations! It was seeing one of her quilts that introduced me to Eli Leon’s work and collections. This series is terrific, thanks to both of you for doing it!

  13. i love that she never asked for help or approval. How freeing it must be to work that way! that’s proof of her confidence and that’s why her work is authentic. I love this quilt. Thanks for sharing it!

  14. john wiercioch says:

    Amazing and inspiring to this non-quilting painter! Thank you so much!

  15. Lynda M O says:

    My what a lovely opportunity to see and be near and examine such a gem in the quilting world. The artistry blows me away and validates so much of what I have seen in my life… Thank you, Sherri and Eli, and especially Rosie Lee.

  16. Louisa LeMauviel says:

    Wow, stunning and energizing!

  17. roccagal says:

    OH what I would not give to see this in person! Wow!
    You are so lucky!
    Thanks both to you and to Eli for sharing these works of art with us!
    We are lucky too, in the long run!!
    hugs to both of you!

  18. deb rowden says:

    Sherri – this is a great gift, getting to go through Eli’s collection, hearing your conversations and observations about the quilts. I love how you’re looking at sections of the quilt and pondering how Rosie worked. Thanks for doing this important work. It’s inspiring.

  19. wonderful. I really do love those areas of dark, low contrast. triangles don’t have to be pointy – love it.

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