Tompkins, a master quilter and a deeply religious individual

Margalit Fox

Margalit Fox

Rosie Lee Tompkins, a renowned African-American quilt-maker whose use of dazzling colour and vivid geometric forms made her work internationally acclaimed despite her vehement efforts to remain completely unknown, was found dead last Friday at her home in Richmond, California. She was 70.

In everyday life, Tompkins was Effie Mae Howard, a fiercely private woman who lived quietly and worked as a practical nurse. As Rosie Lee Tompkins, the pseudonym under which her quilts were shown, she was exhibited, much to her chagrin, in prestigious museums and galleries in the US and Japan.

Lavishly praised by critics, her quilts are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Oakland Museum in California.

Born and raised in Arkansas, Tompkins was heir to the long tradition of black Southern quilting, a form of folk art. The vibrant geometric quilts were made from whatever scraps came to hand.

Tompkins' quilts are made of massed, vivid patches and exude a barely controlled geometric anarchy. Stripes can be thrillingly off-kilter. Patterns shift and fracture. The result, riotous mosaics in cloth, has been likened by critics to Modernist painting.

In traditional quilts, the fabric of choice is cotton. Tompkins' quilts include cut-up feed-sacks, rayon, velvet, polyester, fake fur, wool and silk. Each material reflects light differently; in combination, they look like something viewed through a prism.

Tompkins was born on September 6 1936 in rural southeast Arkansas. One of 15 children, she picked cotton and helped her mother make quilts for the family.

In 1958 she settled in California.

She took classes in practical nursing and went to work in nursing homes. In about 1980, she started to quilt in earnest, producing hundreds and showing them to almost no one outside her family.

She arrived at many of her designs - abstract, improvisational and filled with deep personal significance - after private prayer. Tompkins believed herself to be merely an instrument. It was God, she felt, who designed the quilts and guided her hand.

Even as her quilts gained renown, she revealed her true identity to only a handful of trusted associates. She never attended her out-of-town exhibitions. If a friend managed to drag her to a local exhibition of her work, she quietly slipped into the gallery anonymously. She rarely sold her quilts. Those she did sell went for tens of thousands of dollars apiece. - New York Times