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Effie Mae Howard, 70; quilt artist was known as Rosie Lee Tompkins

December 10, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The quilts of Rosie Lee Tompkins hung in museums, graced the pages of art magazines and left awestruck critics scrambling to describe them.

The critics compared her work to modernist paintings, jazz music, 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 the artist's work, little was known of her personal life.

If she had chosen to do so, she could have dropped in on an opening of one of her shows at a museum and mixed and mingled without anyone even knowing that the artist had arrived. Only four people in the art world even knew what she looked like.

And that was just the way she wanted it.

From the beginning of her career in the 1980s until her death last week at 70 from unknown causes, the artist known as Rosie Lee Tompkins remained anonymous. In the few days since her body was found in her Richmond, Calif., home, more has been revealed about her than was ever widely known while she was alive.

The woman behind the stunning quilts was actually Effie Mae Howard, an African American, Arkansas-born mother and grandmother who loved piecing quilts, loved the Lord and had no use for public acclaim.

"She loved having her quilts published and exhibited as long as she didn't have to go and her name wasn't used," said Eli Leon, a longtime friend and quilt scholar.

That her anonymity was preserved may in the end be a testament both to her insistence and to the distance that lies between the worlds she occupied.

Howard lived for many years in the East Bay city of Richmond, a town of about 100,000, which has wrestled with the distinction of being ranked one of the most dangerous cities of its size in the country. She was married and divorced twice, raised five children and had a career as a practical nurse in convalescent homes.

Leon was her conduit to the art world.

The Bronx-born collector, who holds a master's degree in psychology, had turned his attention to quilts and was searching for those made by African Americans, a fact he made known to Howard when he chanced upon her at a Marin flea market in the mid-1980s.

They exchanged phone numbers, and 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 that would see Leon shepherding her work to museums and galleries.

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

Initially, the public knew only that she was an African American woman. Later they learned she was deeply religious, she was from Arkansas and her mother was a quilter.

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

Even without a name or much of a biography behind them, her quilts won over many critics.

They are often characterized as African American improvisational quilts, marked by bold, lush colors, edges that are irregular, corners that do not meet at strict angles and irregular composition; what Eleanor Heartney described in a 2003 article as "pulsing patterns of triangles and squares whose visual logic cannot be rationally adduced."

Although some observers compared them to modernist paintings, Leon and others saw an Africanness in her style, technique and philosophy, and in her inspiration.

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

"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 regularly featured in magazines and exhibited at university galleries and museums throughout the nation, including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, which included her quilts in its 2002 Biennial Exhibition and has one in its collection.

Her work is currently on display at the Figge Museum of Art in Davenport, Iowa.

Her insistence on anonymity fed suspicions that there was no Rosie Lee Tompkins and rumors that Leon had actually created the quilts. Lawrence Rinder, a curator who had insisted on meeting the artist before showing her work, would attest to her existence.

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