Leap of Faith

This past weekend I stepped into a museum for the first time in many many months to see an exhibition I've been looking forward to since before COVID upended the world.


String, 1985

photo: from Rosie Lee Tompkins, Berkeley Art Museum, 1997


To cut to the chase, if you can see Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective in person at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive - do it!  Seeing her work in real life will show you not just beauty - but also that rarer thing, the sublime.


Untitled [with "Christmas" material], 1986


I've always thought that to make artwork, a person has to be willing to be in the wilderness for some amount of time - sometimes a very long time. Like a ship out of sight of land on a starless night or a person lost in unfamiliar woods, when you're in the wilderness you don't remotely know how you're going to get from where you are to where you want to be.  (Ok, also imagine that the whole internet is down or you just dropped your only device overboard. Now maybe the scenario makes you more nervous?)

Some people, artists among them, are willing to step out into the void and make a start when the destination is unknown and invisible. That seems to me to be, at its heart, a very hopeful and confident impulse, even though the person may not feel confident in the moment. They probably feel in some way dissatisfied, maybe even desperate or lost. But there's a core of confidence that lets the person say, as they step into the night, "F-it. I'll figure it out. Or, let's be honest, maybe I won't. But I need to see what I can do."


Three Sixes, 1986


Rosie Lee Tompkins seems to have made peace with not knowing, maybe even took refuge in it. Her quilts accrue piece by piece without a map, using 'models held in the mind', according to collector and quilt scholar Eli Leon. Growing up, she learned a style of what's often called improvisational quilting from her mother and other quilters in the Black community in rural southeastern Arkansas.  After moving to Northern California in her twenties in 1958, at some point she began quilting again, and her life there provided new layers of inspiration and influences.

She was very religious and described her work as divinely inspired. To her, perhaps the artistic void didn't feel like a void at all - she thought of herself as an instrument channeling designs from God and making her quilts as a way of worshipping. Some speculate there was a meditative aspect in the work for her, a freedom in not looking or planning ahead during some parts of the process. 


Untitled, c. 2002

photo: Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive


Tompkins passed away in 2006, and not much is known about how she thought about or went about her work because she was extremely publicity-averse. Rosie Lee Tompkins isn't even her real name - collector Eli Leon made up the name as part of a campaign to get her to allow him to exhibit her work, which she was not willing to do if it would sacrifice her privacy.

Well, Ms. Tompkins, I'd say you succeeded as much as anyone does in making the work you wanted to make and keeping the world at bay. And we get to see some distant 'flashes of the spirit', as my old professor Robert Farris Thompson would say.


Untitled, 1992


The rich colors, the velvets and metallics, the large scale of many of the works and the commanding presence of even the small ones, the deft compositional structure and cohesion, the bold embroidery of your (real) name and birthdate, and the use of certain colors you associated with yourself and your family - I see a confident pillar at the center there, a sense of the importance and value of your work, and an enjoyment of your power to impress those you cared to impress. Your victories and motives are your own. Your struggles are your own. But thanks for sharing some flashes with us.



 Untitled, 1987

photo: from Rosie Lee Tompkins, Berkeley Art Museum, 1997

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