Untitled 1996 quilt by Rosie Lee Tompkins

 

OVER THE COURSE of three decades, Eli Leon assembled a collection of nearly 3,000 quilts by both well-known and little-known African American artists. Leon died last year and through a posthumous bequest, the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) has acquired the unparalled collection.

More than 400 artists are represented in the Leon Collection. While many of the works are by anonymous quilters, multiple works by Laverne Brackens, Sherry Byrd, Willa Ette Graham, Gladys Henry, Angelia Tobias, Rosie Lee Tompkins and Arbie Williams, are included in the collection.

The holdings feature more than 500 works by the Tompkins (1936–2006), an internationally recognized, Richmond-Calif.-based artist. (She was born Effie Mae Martin and her married name was Effie Mae Howard.). Tompkins is known for her abstract and improvisational creations made with unique materials, such as velvet, faux fur, and glistening fabrics.

Writing about her work in 2002, New York Times critic Robert Smith said: “Unerring and intuitive in their sense of color, shape and scale, Ms. Tompkins’s quilts are formidably joyful visual events that ignore the usual boundaries between cultures, histories and mediums.”

Leon and Tompkins were friends and he was an early champion of her practice. The majority of her entire body of work is housed in the Leon Collection.

 


ROSIE LEE TOMPKINS, “Thirty-six Nine-patch,” 1996, Quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1996 (polyester, polyester doubleknit, terrycloth, acrylic yarn, 120 x 86 inches). | Photo by Sharon Risedorph

 

BAMPFA was informed of the historic gift after Leon died. The collector passed away March 6, 2018, at age 82. The Oakland-based psychologist and self-taught quilt scholar willed the collection to the museum.

According to BAMPFA, the private collection is believed to be the largest of its kind ever assembled and the gift is one of the largest bequests of African American art ever donated to a U.S. museum. In a statement, the museum said the transformative acquisition “establishes a new and unparalleled area of strength in BAMPFA’s encyclopedic collection,” which already includes “sizeable” holdings of African American art.

BAMPFA’s collection includes nearly 25,000 works of art and 16,000 films and videos. The newly acquired African American quilts (along with some assemblage and embroidery works) account for nearly 15 percent of the museum’s art holdings.

“It’s not often that a museum receives a gift that, in a single stroke, creates a new, defining institutional strength—which is precisely what Eli Leon has done by entrusting us with his unparalleled collection of African American quilts,” BAMPFA Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder said in a statement.

“We intend to honor this incredible act of generosity just as Eli would have wanted us to—by making a sustained commitment to the long-term exhibition and scholarship of these extraordinary holdings, in order to deepen public appreciation for the vibrancy of African American quilt making traditions.”

 


ARBIE WILLIAMS, “Strip,” 1987. | Photo by Geoffry Johnson

 

LEON BEGAN COLLECTING thrift store treasures and folk objects, including quilts, in the 1970s and first became aware of quilts by African American artists in 1985 when he met Tompkins at an Oakland-area flea market. Soon after, Leon, who is white, became a dedicated and voracious collector of African American quilts.

In a span of more than 30 years, he also developed into a knowledgable expert. A 1989 Guggenheim Fellowship supported Leon’s research in the South. His discoveries in California led to further research and travels to East Texas, northern Louisiana, southern Arkansas, and the Mississippi Delta.

Many of the African American artists he encountered in the Bay Area migrated from these regions, where they learned the art and rich family and cultural traditions of quilt making from earlier generations. The phenomena is represented in the collection. Leon acquired quilts by Laverne Brackens of Fairfield, Texas, for example, as well as works by Gladys Henry, her mother, and Sherry Byrd, her daughter.

During his lifetime, Leon organized many exhibitions of the quilts in his collection, mounting his first show in 1987. “Who’d A Thought It: Improvisation in African American Quiltmaking” was presented at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco. Featuring more than two dozen quilts, the exhibition traveled throughout the country to institutions such as the American Craft Museum in New York and the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

LEON’S HISTORY WITH BAMPFA dates to 1997, when the museum presented Tompkins’s first solo exhibition. Leon was a close collaborator on the show, which was curated by Rinder. (Rinder also co-curated the 2002 Whitney Biennial and featured Tompkins work in that exhibition.)

Entrusted with Leon’s vast collection, BAMPFA is committed to broadening awareness and recognition of the works, and therefore the genre, through further research, scholarship, publications, and exhibitions.

 


KATTIE PENNINGTON, “Bow Tie Medallion,” circa 1985, Quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1990 (cotton broadcloth, cotton duck, corduroy, gingham, dotted swiss, velvet, polyester doubleknit, calico, leno lace stripe, yarn-dyed striped shirting, birds-eye jacquard, 60 x 80 inches). | Photo by Sharon Risedorph

 

BAMPFA is in the process analyzing and assessing the condition of the entire collection which is being cataloged for the first time. Plans for showcasing the acquisitions are already underway. A Tompkins retrospective is scheduled for February 2020. The largest-ever review of her career will feature about 80 works from the Leon Collection—many displayed publicly for the first time.

An exhibition focused more broadly on a range of artists represented in the collection will follow in early 2022, with works by Tompkins and many other artists including Sherry Byrd, Willa Ette Graham, and Arbie Williams on view. A major scholarly catalog about the collection will be published to accompany the exhibition.

“By selecting BAMPFA as the permanent home for his remarkable collection, Eli Leon has given UC Berkeley a magnificent gift that will advance our commitment to celebrating diverse voices and cultural traditions,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement.

“BAMPFA is uniquely suited to ensure that these wonderful works of art receive the exposure and attention they deserve through the museum’s outstanding exhibition program and the extensive scholarly resources of the university.”

Toward that end, Rinder is co-organizing the Tompkins retrospective with Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow Elaine Yau and the museum is applying for grant support to establish and fund a curatorial fellowship focused specifically on research and scholarship on the Leon Collection.

In 2017, a sale of about 500 quilts was held at Leon’s home with the proceeds going to support his care. The quilts offered were described as “traditional” and “standard” (meaning they were made by white quilters) and dated from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. News of the sale was reported in Berkeleyside, an independent, local news site. The article stated: “His collection of African-American quilts will not be for sale; they are museum-bound.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: ROSIE LEE TOMPKINS, “Untitled,” 1996, Quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1996 (cotton, cotton flannel, cotton feed sack, linen, rayon, flocked satin, velvet, cotton-synthetic blend, cotton-acrylic jersey, acrylic double-weave, cotton-polyester, polyester doubleknit, acrylic and cotton tapestry, silk batik, polyester velour, rayon or acrylic embroidery on cotton, wool, needlepoint, shisha-mirror embroidery, 88 x 146 inches). | Photo by Sharon Risedorph

 

FIND MORE about quilt artists Laverne Brackens, Arbie Williams, and Rosie Lee Tompkins.

 

BOOKSHELF
A selection of quilts in the Eli Leon Collection are documented in the 1987 exhibition catalog “Who’d a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking.” Leon also authored “Let It Shine: Improvisation in African-American Star Quilts,” “No Two Alike: African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern,” and “Something Pertaining to God: The Patchwork Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins.” In terms of African American quilts, the museum field has largely focused on works made by the women of rural Gee’s Bend, Ala., whose quilts were first exhibited in 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Several volumes have been published about their work and subsequent exhibitions, including “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend,” “Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts,” and “Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt.” Previously, the narrative appliqué-style quilts of African American artist Harriet Powers (1837-1910) drew attention. She was born enslaved in rural Clarke County, Ga. A circa 1885-86 Bible Quilt by Powers is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston acquaired a Pictorial Quilt (1895-98) by Powers in 1964. A number of publications document her work, including “Harriet Powers’s Bible Quilts.”

 


MINNIE LEE METCALF, “Grandmother’s Rose Garden,” 1989 (cotton/poly broadcloth, cotton sheeting, oxford cloth, 77 in x 83 inches). | Photo by Sharon Risedorph

 


“AUNT” JEWELL HARTS, “Giant Four-patch,” 1990 (cotton broadcloth, polyester doubleknit, madras plaid cotton, cotton twill, calcutta cloth, velveteen, oxford cloth, novelty-woven cloth, 88 x 98 inches). | Photo by Sharon Risedorph

 


EMMA HALL, “Double Wedding Ring,” circa 1940 (cotton broadcloth, 70 x 71 inches). | Photo by Sharon Risedorph

 


EFFIE JACKSON, “Double Strip,” early 1940s, Quilted by Willia Ette Graham and Johnnie Wade, 1988 ( 76 x 94 inches). | Photo by Sharon Risedorph

 


ROSIE LEE TOMPKINS, “Untitled,” 1985, Quilted by Willia Ette Graham, 1985 (velvet, velveteen, rayon chenille, 80 x 74 inches). | Photo by Sharon Risedorph

 


GUSSIE WELLS, “Palindromic Strip,” 1984, Quilted by Willia Ette Graham, 1984 (windbreaker nylon, 86 x 90 inches). | Photo by Sharon Risedorph

 


ANONYMOUS, “Variations on a Theme,” circa 1940. | Photo by Geoffry Johnson

 


ARBIE WILLIAMS, “Medallion,” 1987, Quilted by Willia Ette Graham, 1987. | Photo by Geoffry Johnson

 

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