01 Half-Squares Medallion, pieced by Rosie Lee Tompkins, quilted by Willia Ette Graham, 1986, 195 x 216cm. Velvet, velveteen, velour, faux fur, panne velvet. 02 Put-Together (Who’da), 1985, 188 x 208cm. Velvet, velveteen, velour, chenille, cotton. 03 Portrait, 1986. 04 String, 1985, 218 x 254cm. Velvet, velveteen, chenille.
of mind. Sadly, medication offered little relief. “I feel like I don't have any privacy,” she once told Leon, “like I'm living in a glass house or something where everybody's always looking in or listening to what I say.” In later years, she covered her walls with patchworks containing appliquéd crosses and embroidered citations of Holy Scripture in a hopeful attempt to fend off intruding voices. Her embroidery stitches were strong, almost crude making the pieced fabric surfaces contort with emotions. “The reason it makes me feel so good,” she explained, “is that I put Christ in the center of it.” One quilt cites John 1:1 referring to the verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Sometimes, she embroidered her quilts with simply “Word”, an allusion to God offering shelter and protection. Howard found solace in her special blend of prayer and needlework and, over time, found new means to infuse her quilt-making with spirituality. Eli Leon, who began collecting American quilts in the 1970s and specifically African-American quilts, quilt tops and related objects in the1980s, curated his first major exhibition of African-American quilts in 1988. “Who'd a Thought It: Improvisation in AfricanAmerican Quiltmaking” was groundbreaking and travelled to twenty-eight venues across the United States. Leon included four dynamic pieces of Howard's work. Howard, realizing her name would be widely circulated in public, refused to let her real name be known. At the last minute, Leon concocted a likely Southern name and Effie Mae Howard was introduced to the public as “Rosie Lee Tompkins” who proved to be the star of that exhibition. Little did Leon know that a day of browsing at a local flea market in 1985 would initiate a 21-year long friendship with Howard (Tompkins). She was selling household items but after enquiring about local quilt-makers, Leon found out about Howard's craft. As Leon would come to find – sometimes to his exasperation – Howard's self-effacement was unshakable. Despite his encouragement and her growing acclaim she would insist she was not special and her work “not worth the fuss”. But her intense privacy did not mean Rosie Lee Tompkins was a recluse from life. When art-historian Lawrence Rinder asked what music she liked to listen to while working, she admitted she was partial to a little disco, namely the soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever”. She appreciated the artistry of her work and enjoyed having them published and exhibited but she eschewed publicity. She believed God designed the quilts, her hands merely instruments. Her
vibrant and untempered passion for colour - sparkling and lustrous, matching or contrasting, came through both in art and in life, whether in piecing a quilt or simply laying out her clothes for the day. “I think it's because I love them so much,” Tompkins reflected, “that God let me see all these different colors.” Tompkins never made anything for sale. The piecing, stitching, laying of colours, patterns and textures were all part of a dialogue with her Creator. Her creative impulse meant she returned to patchworks, adding elements such as appliqué and embroidery. She stitched “Mathew 5:24” – “Leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” – perhaps to resolve an inner conflict about being “selfish” by protectively surrounding herself with her work. In Three Sixes, a series of three quilts worked on from the early 1980s until 2006, a composition of strips in particular configuration and number honour three relatives whose birth dates include the number six. The yellow-purple-orange colour combination also holds special family significance. One of the Three Sixes contains her name Effie Mae Howard, her birthday handstitched as 9-6-36 and at the bottom again “Effie”. She sometimes listed the numbers 69, 70, 71 and so on which seemed to indicate her age during the making of the quilt – a kind of journal. These self-referential elements increased in her later “Effie Mae” pieces. Scribbly letters, words and numbers relentlessly handstitched in contrasting threads sometimes cover the 03 entire quilt surface. These could not be publicly exhibited until her death in order to preserve her anonymity. Effie Mae Howard's creative process using patchwork, appliqué and embroidery was deeply rooted in the personal and religious. She defies the general quilter's method of beginning with an idea and stitching to completion. Instead, her work was an evolving process recording her search for divine tranquility. In her pursuit of peace and comfort, she built a protective environment – layered, piled and emblazoned with her stitched prayers. We will never be sure if any of her pieces were finished. ••• Yoshiko Wada Effie Mae Howard’s work will be exhibited in Sunshine and Surprises: African American Quilts from the Eli Leon and Robert Cargo Collections at the Festival of Quilts, Birmingham, UK, 16-19 August, 2007, www.twistedthread.com. Her one woman show, Something Pertaining to God will be at the Shelburne Museum, Vermont, until October 28, 2007, www.shelburnemuseum.org.