How a Black woman turned quilting into a surprisingly radical art form

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The New York Times has a fascinating new article about the life and work of Rosie Lee Tompkins, whose stunning quilting art is currently the subject of a retrospective exhibit (online, and in person) at the UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.

I certainly hadn’t heard of Tompkins before this. Nor had I given much thought to quilting as a modern art form, let alone a radical one. Sure, I’d seen centuries-old craftwork on display in museums. But, as I learned from the Times article, Tompkins work was a uniquely American expression — a predecessor in a way to the remix culture that would later lead to the development of hip-hop. Sometimes, you have to use whatever materials are available to you, and transform them in ways that can (hopefully) fulfill both practical and artistic purposes. And that’s exactly what Tompkins did:

Tompkins was an inventive colorist whose generous use of black added to the gravity of her efforts. She worked in several styles and all kinds of fabrics, using velvets — printed, panne, crushed — to gorgeous effect, in ways that rivaled oil paint. But she was also adept with denim, faux furs, distressed T-shirts and fabrics printed with the faces of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Magic Johnson.

A typical Tompkins quilt had an original, irresistible aliveness. One of her narrative works was 14 feet across, the size of small billboard. It appropriated whole dish towels printed with folkloric scenes, parts of a feed sack, and, most prominently, bright bold chunks of the American flag.

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