Profile: Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2006)

Rosie Lee Tompkins is the art pseudonym of Effie Mae Martin Howard, a widely-acclaimed African-American quiltmaker and fiber artist of Richmond, California. The New York Times called her “one of the great American artists,” and her work “one of the century’s major artistic accomplishments.” More than 500 works by Tompkins reside at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Early life

Born Effie Mae Martin, she was born September 6, 1936 to a sharecropping family in southeastern Arkansas.


Tompkins, who had helped her mother make quilts as a child, began to quilt seriously about 1980, while making a living as a practical nurse. She said she believed God directed her hand and her art. Her abstract, improvisational compositions often had a personal significance: one of her more well-known works, “Three Sixes,” involves three relatives whose birthdays include the number 6. Despite the fact that she was a deeply private person and rarely sold her quilts, her work was discovered in 1985 by Eli Leon, an Oakland-based collector specializing in African-American quilts.

Style and materials

Tompkins’s quilts were not made from old clothes or other scraps but from fabrics she purchased for their textures and light-reflecting qualities, including velvet, fake fur, wool, silk and Lurex. She worked with the convention of the quilt block but with enormous variation in size, free distortions of shape and vivid color contrasts that have been described as “geometric anarchy” and “riotous mosaics.”

Tompkins’ work at BAMPFA

In 2019, as a bequest, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) acquired the Eli Leon Collection of almost 3,000 works by African-American quilt makers, including more than 500 works by Tompkins, which will find a permanent home at the museum. Drawing from the Eli Leon Collection, BAMPFA organized the exhibit Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective (opened February 19, 2020; closed due to COVID-19 shut-down; re-opens September through December 20, 2020); The New York Times called it “a triumphal retrospective” that “confirms her standing as one of the great American artists–transcending craft, challenging painting and reshaping the canon.”

Personal life

She was married and divorced twice. “Howard” was a married name. She was reclusive and fiercely protective of her privacy and the right to privacy of family. Family included her mother; several children and stepchildren; and many siblings, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who survived her.


Tompkins was found dead at her home in Richmond, California on Friday December 1, 2006. She died aged 70.

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