Talking Quilts with Eli Leon ~ Sarah Turnage

This quilt was pieced by Sarah Turnage of San Francisco and quilted by Mary Thompson and Aurelia Forester.

Quarter Log Cabin by Sarah Turnage

There is so much motion in this quilt that it borders on optical illusion!

The first thing Eli brings to my attention are the two bright reds in the center of the quilt that create a medallion of sorts. They hold the center of the quilt and are flanked by subtle borders.

Notice how the thick brown strip that runs across four blocks the top plays off the skinnier brown strip in the bottom right that runs across two blocks. These constitute a top and bottom frame, or inner border around the reds in the center.

The left border is delineated by a subtle shift of color and scale or rhythm of the blocks. The outer right border is made with strips of solids on the edge that lead to an outer bordered edge of pink on the bottom right.

Notice how there isn’t any white in the blocks bordering the quilt. All the white is contained in the center blocks. This also delineates a sense of the borders.

Eli notes the variable strip widths. Most of the strips and squares are cut evenly but there are a few that are cut wider on one end than the other, these slight irregularities add to the quilt.

The block pattern is a quarter log cabin. Eli believes that the quarter log cabin is unique to the African-American tradition of quilting. He could find no record of this block pattern originating from the Euro-American tradition. It is NOT made by making a log cabin block and cutting it into quarters. Each quarter log cabin block in this quilt was made individually — no two alike.

Not only is each block unique the way the center squares of the blocks come together is always different. Sometimes two squares meet at a seam, sometimes three, sometimes the square runs into strips.

Notice how Sarah uses solids and patterns in this quilt. In the bottom row of the quilt there is a complete mix of fabrics. Eli thinks its undefined. That part of the quilt fades compared to the rest of it. We agree that this is perhaps the weakest section of the quilt, was she trying to do something special or did she just run out of solids? What do you think?

Otherwise the interspersing of solids with prints, especially plaids and stripes add to the boldness and optical nature of the quilt. The flower prints seem like filler to Eli, but I think the pink and green and orange flower print is unexpected and works wonderfully. We both love how the plaids and stripes go in different directions.

Sarah uses all kinds of fabrics, including polyester. These textures add to the quilt. I love how all the lime green is congregated up at the top. The fact that it is not scattered everywhere is a strong design choice.

I also love the quilt’s naturally finished shape. Sarah didn’t just take a ruler and whack off the edges of the quilt to make a straight edge.

Eli insists the name of this quilt is Turkey Breast, because that is how it is listed in some of his notes and in his book, Models of the Mind. However on the tag attached to the quilt Eli listed the name as Turkey Boast.  We disputed the name of the quilt for quite a bit. I think Turkey Boast makes sense because the pattern reminds me of a turkey strutting around. Eli insists that his records record the name as Turkey Breast even though he agrees that it doesn’t make a bit of sense. We both have a good laugh about the pattern name, but whatever the name it’s a spectacular doozy of a quilt. It is unique of its kind.

Listen to our conversation

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.

Posted in Modern Improv, Reviews | Tagged , , , | 25 Comments

Upcoming Events & Workshops

People have been asking me about my teaching schedule. I’m happy to announce an exhibition and upcoming improvisational patchwork classes scattered across the country. I may be teaching in your neighborhood soon!


October 10 - December 28, 2013Right now you can view Rainbow Cloud Quilt in the exhibition, Roots of Modern Quilting, at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, MA.


February 7-9, 2014. I will be teaching the Improv Round Robin at the Modern Quilt Guild’s SewDown: Portland. Registration is open!

North Carolina (East Coast)

July 2014 (specific dates to be determined). Spoonflower in Durham, NC. I will be speaking about Improvisational Patchwork and Process and teaching a full day improvisational quilting workshop. More details to come!

I would like to piggy back two or three more east coast gigs over a two-week period in July. If you are interested in having me teach in your east coast city at your local quilt shop, guild or art school during this time contact me and we will try to make it happen!  I’m willing to travel as far as NY and all the way down to Atlanta.


August 25-26, 2014Santa Clara Valley Quilt Association, Santa Clara, CA. I will be speaking about Improvisational Patchwork and Process and teaching a workshop.

Hello California quilters! I’m local which means minimal transportation costs. Also Bay Area quilters, I may be teaching a series of test-kitchen improvisational workshops for my book this winter or early spring. Please stay tuned!


November 14-15, 2014Camp Stitchalot, Pleasant Lake, MI. So pleased to announce that I will be one of the “camp counselors” for this cozy event! Registration is open.

Again I am hoping to piggyback an additional presentation or workshop immediately before or after Camp Stitchalot.  If you know of a guild, quilt shop, or art school in the Detroit or Lansing area who might be interested please contact me!


March 1-2, 2015, Fidalgo Island Quilters, Anacortes, WA. I will be doing two presentations for the guild and teaching a workshop.

I am available to present or teach immediately before or after my visit with FIQ.  If you know of a guild, quilt shop, or art school in the Seattle area who might be interested please contact me!

Photos are from Get Your Curve On, a workshop held at the Pajoro Valley Quilt Association, Santa Cruz, CA on September 9, 2013. A good time was had by all! If you attended this class PLEASE leave a review in the comments.

Posted in Community, Events and Workshops, Mod Mood Quilt, Modern Improv | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

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.

Posted in Modern Improv, Reviews, The Modern Quilt | Tagged , , , , , | 31 Comments

Piñata Anchor of Hope ~ Happy Birthday Mom

It’s my mom’s birthday today. She would have been 70, but she died of pancreatic cancer 10 years ago when she was only 60. I miss her. It’s a rainy day today in the Bay Area, but I feel cozy in my home with a candle lit in her memory, reviewing photographs taken of the two of us during different stages of our relationship. She is still with me.

In the photo above we are performing at a church Valentine’s talent show. She is the 70′s version of Patti Page singing “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.” I’m the doggie of course singing the “arf-arf” chorus. I’m vaguely sure our “singing” was in the form of lip-synching, but I do have a distinct memory of my mom teaching me to make the tissue paper flowers that decorated the stage in the basement-level, fellowship hall of Seventh Street Christian Church in Richmond, VA.

This memory of my mom spurred a temporary public art project that I produced, funded, created, and performed for the city of Durham, NC in 2005, a year after her death. The city of Durham was entering a first phase of rapid redevelopment and urban renewal at that time. Lots of things were beginning to change. Renewal of the city center was something everyone hoped for but there was also a sense of loss. On a personal level I was thinking a lot about the nature, and meaning of hope in the face of grief and death.

Piñata Anchor of Hope

The Piñata Anchor of Hope combined two cultural symbols of hope, the “anchor”–the hope for stability during rough seas, the “piñata” –the hope for the prize, with a third natural metaphor for hope –the “seed.”

I had to get permission from city hall and local business owners to site the project on the long abandoned empty lot in the town center where the old Woolworth’s building used to stand.  I worked with children from several downtown after school programs and magnet schools to create the piñata. Friends provided sweat equity, gardening expertise, and their creative talents. Horse & Buggy Press designed and donated beautiful letter pressed posters. I had fundraisers. Poets read and drummers drummed at the public ceremony. The community was involved in the watering and maintenance of the garden. It was written up in all three of the local papers.

Unbeknownst to everyone but my sister, who traveled to Durham to help me pitch the anchor off of the three-story building, a handful of my mother’s ashes were mixed with the wildflower seeds. I remember thinking that the anchor falling through the sky was like the body of my dead mother.

I recently heard from one of my Durham friends that construction of a 26-story apartment complex on the old Woolworth’s lot is in the process of being approved by city hall. I am pleased that he recalled the blessing of that de facto public space, the abandoned lot in the center of the city of Durham, eight years earlier.

Sister, Father, Family

Ten years ago today my dad, sister, brother and the rest of the family were celebrating my mom’s 60th knowing it would be her last birthday. This is a picture of Dad, Sis, me and my dad’s second wife, Ruth, on Alameda Beach just two days ago. They were visiting from North Carolina all last week. We had a wonderful time together. We thought of mom and missed her.

Oh how life mysteriously generates and goes on!

Posted in Art and Social Practice, Community, Craft Therapy, My Creative Process, Personal Heritage | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Talking Quilts with Eli Leon ~ Signature Quilt

Eli Leon has a collection of approximately 30 signature quilts. Many of them are Anglo-American in origin but this quilt, most likely made by an African-American, is his favorite, and he pulled it out for me to see.

Eli took some time figuring out the names on this quilt, and he pulled out his detailed notes. One of the first things we noticed was that the script of the quilt maker has some unusual features. It’s difficult to distinguish between letters, such as c & e, e & l, d & l, 5 & 6.  One of the key names, perhaps the husband of the quilt maker, is not clear… perhaps its Samuel K? There are no last names just an initial K, and we don’t know the maker’s first name.

The quilt seems to document the family. How are these people related? Eli and I discussed at length the position of the names. At the top of the quilt you see STK – M to –  KAK – JAN 9 1905 (or 6?). Are the names –Ernest K, Lawrence, Leroy K –sons? Or could Ernest K be the father or brother of STK, or the oldest son? Could Lawrence and Leroy be twins? Are Violet, Catherine and Ethel daughters? Below the girls names is the name Arthur C K followed by Mildred K and then in the far right column, Alice. Could this be a father, mother and sister or perhaps an uncle, aunt and cousin to the maker or the maker’s husband? Notice Mothers day in the same row as Mildred K. How is this significant?

Eli thought the family must have resided in or was from Florida. This is where the quilt was purchased and the abreviation FlA surrounded by palm trees can be found twice in the quilt.

Besides the marriage date. There is also the date 1942 – Samuel K – died 27 of Dec. Below that is the probable signature of the maker KAK flanked on each side by the dates Feb 14. 1942 and 1940. What is the significance of the year 1940? Was that the year the quilt was started? Did it mark the beginning of an illness? Did Valentines Day in 1942 represent a last happy memory for KAK of her husband, before his death in December of the same year?

When Eli first received this quilt into his collection he did some genealogy research but came up empty-handed.

The more Eli and I figured out about this quilt, the more questions we were left with. 

As a family tree and signature quilt it is certainly stunning, but what strikes me the most about this quilt is that it must have been made during a time of loss. Was it made after K’s death? Or was it made during an extended illness and his subsequent death?

After sitting a while with this quilt I felt a deep and profound sadness resonating within me. I imagined the person stitching these names and images on black velvet, and of all the thoughts and memories, worries and joys she may have felt while making it. I wondered about the life of this family. How did they fare? How did the daily relationships between them unfold?  Where and who are their descendants?

With its visual field of deep black velvet and twinkling white stitches this quilt is as powerful and mysterious as the universe. It’s as mysterious as death and the feelings of mourning. It’s as powerful as the soul that binds family relations together in complex ways.

Wow! Nice first quilt for the Talking Quilts with Eli Leon series?  

Eli and I are curious to hear your thoughts and questions. What do you see in this quilt? How does it strike you? What catches your eye, or resonates from within?

Posted in Modern Improv, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

improv from the heart ~ lessons learned in theater class

I began an eight week theater improv workshop feeling intrepidly awkward. I finished the workshop with newfound freedom and feelings of joy and bounty.

This is what I learned:

Improvisation is establishing a pattern or noticing my pattern, and choosing to do something different. The first thing we did in class was to walk naturally. After a bit of that our teacher asked us to make one small change in our gait. This is the basic building block of improvisational process.   

Focusing on making my partner look good, making sure I had his or her back, greatly reduced my own self-consciousness. This is an excellent tactic for fostering conversation with strangers and friends.       

Aspire to the greatest challenges. Taking risks provides an opportunity to embrace failure and celebrate mistakes. Whenever we got stuck on stage, or during one of the games, our teacher encouraged us to throw up our arms and gleefully declare our mistake with an enthusiastic “whoopee!” I began doing this at home when I burn toast or worse, and while making quilts. It’s extremely freeing and effective to let go of self-judgement in this physical way. Try it. Seriously try it.

I don’t need to plan ahead. All I have to do is affirm what my partner offers and add one little bit to it. By taking things moment by moment and accepting everything that’s offered and building on it –doth make the scene or quilt unfold. Practicing this in the theater class has reinforced my ability to do this with in my improvisational patchwork.

The path where I am least comfortable holds the most promise for discovery and the most opportunity for a dynamic unfolding of the scene. Choose the route that feels “dangerous?” How awesome is that! I’m so tired of living a life where my primary concern is being comfortable. Everywhere I turn culture bombards me with the supremacy of comfort and security as the highest standard by which all relationships seem to be deemed as meant to be, or not meant to be. Okay I will stop my rant right here but let me say that I am moved to tears of gratitude, in this moment as I’m writing, for having the opportunity to participate in a community that affirms one of my deepest values –that discovery is the path to knowing and being known which leads to the gateway of freedom, and freedom is the path to connection, and connection the path to  joy.

Damn if I’m not going to have some fantastic kick-ass quilts if I keep this in mind while I’m making them! Which brings me to this quote by quilt maker Arbie Williams:

I’m going to be up to something real dangerous when I get through with this. This quilt done killed two people.  –from ”Let It Shine: Improvisation in African-American Star Quilts” by Eli Leon.


Fully commit — to the character and to what has been established in the scene –and follow it whole heartedly. I learned that commitment actually supports flexibility, because with commitment comes whole heartedness. Once I am into something 100% it’s easier to be present and flexible. When I committed to the smallest character trait like a nervous hand tick for example, the scene flowed with less effort.  There are so many choices to make in a quilt that without commitment there is no flow or integrity, just a constant back and forth that leads to confusion, feelings of being overwhelmed and a mishmash patchwork. Commitment feels and looks so good in comparison!

Of course I discovered so much more than I can put into words. Hopefully the many lessons learned from theater improv will show up in my quilts. I’m joyful to report I’m already feeling some impact on my life and relationships.

A big shout out to my teacher, David Alger at the Pan Theater in Oakland, CA, and to all of my amazingly talented and brave Improv From The Heart classmates – whoopee!

Posted in Community, My Creative Process, Personal Heritage | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Talking Quilts with Eli Leon

As part of my research for my forthcoming book on improvisational patchwork I’ve been reviewing the many amazing show catalogues based on Eli Leon’s collection of over 1000 African-American improvisational quilts.

During a recent visit he generously gave me a stack of his catalogues and we spent an afternoon looking at them and talking about our favorite quilts. In particular I’ve been grooving on Accidentally on Purpose, a catalogue that includes two extensive essays by Eli, from the exhibition at the Figge Art Museum in 2006.

The essays written by Eli, incorporate over a 100 hours of interviews of African-American quilt makers. They speak about their process in their own words and Eli brilliantly pieces together their narratives into a comprehensive view of their approaches, tactics, and methods of improvisation. If you want to really learn about improvisational patchwork then study these quilts and read Eli’s essays.

The quilt-making successors of these early African-Americans often express a high regard for scraps. “Scraps,” Odessa Dolby told me, “make the best quilts.” “I’d rather have the scraps,” Frances Johnson agreed. “I like the different materials.” “When you use scraps,” Kate Brown reported, “you always get a surprise.” –excerpt from Accidentally On Purpose by Eli Leon

Announcing a fabulous EXCLUSIVE blog series!

We had so much fun talking quilts while looking at the catalogues, we decided to “talk quilts” on a regular basis.

Now each time I visit, Eli chooses a different quilt from his African-American collection that he particularly likes.  I’m always surprised. We hang it in his living room, sit back, bask in the quilt’s magnificent glory, and then discuss the aspects of its design that contribute to its shine.

Eli has a keen aesthetic sense and a wealth of information about African-American improvisational quilts and their makers. I am happy to say he has given me permission to share images of the quilts and notes from our conversations. Stay tuned — join the conversation — grab an archive button for your blog if you like.

Posted in Modern Improv, Reviews | Tagged , | 24 Comments