With One Astonishing Gift, a Berkeley Art Museum Has Become an International Hub for African American Quilts—See Highlights Here

The late Oakland-based collector Eli Leon donated his entire trove of African American quilts to the Berkeley institution.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled (1996); quilted by Irene Bankhead. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.
Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled (1996); quilted by Irene Bankhead. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

“It’s not often that a museum receives a gift that, in a single stroke, creates a new, defining institutional strength,” Lawrence Rinder, director and chief curator of the UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, said last week. But this is precisely what happened when the late collector and Oakland-based psychologist Eli Leon bequeathed his collection of some 3,000 African American quilts, instantly transforming the California museum into an international hub for the genre.

In his New York Times obituary, Roberta Smith describes Leon, who died in March 2018, as “an obsessive collector—or, perhaps more accurately, a highly discriminating hoarder,” who packed his home in Oakland to the gills with treasures, including some 30 meat grinders, knick-knacks, and, of course, an unparalleled trove of handmade quilts.

The gift to BAMPFA—which the museum only learned about after his death—includes work by Laverne Brackens, Gladys Henry, and, most importantly, more than 500 examples by the artist Rosie Lee Tompkins, whom Leon met in 1985 and championed for the rest of his life. The museum is now in the process of researching the entire collection, which has not been comprehensively catalogued until now.

The late collector Eli Leon, photo courtesy of BAMPFA.

In 1987, the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum exhibited Leon’s quilts in “Who’d a Thought It: Improvisation in African American Quiltmaking,” which went on to travel throughout the country. After seeing a show organized by Leon, Rinder himself included Tompkins’s work in the 2000 Whitney Biennial and later put on the first solo show dedicated to the artist at BAMPFA, where many of her works will now live for good.

The bequest will form the basis of a retrospective devoted to Rosie Lee Tompkins opening at the museum on February 19, and, in 2022, another exhibition detailing the breadth of the gift will present works by Sherry Byrd, Willia Ette Graham, and Arbie Williams, among others.

See examples from the vibrant collection below.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Three Sixes (1987); quilted by Willia Ette Graham. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Anonymous, Variations on a Theme (ca. 1940). Photo: Geoffry Johnson.

Anonymous, Variations on a Theme (ca. 1940). Photo: Geoffry Johnson.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, <i>Untitled</i> (1985); quilted by Willia Ette Graham. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Untitled (1985); quilted by Willia Ette Graham. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Arbie Williams, <i>Medallion</i> (1987); quilted by Willia Ette Graham. Photo: Geoffry Johnson.

Arbie Williams, Medallion (1987); quilted by Willia Ette Graham. Photo: Geoffry Johnson.

Emma Hall, Double Wedding Ring, (ca. 1940). Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Emma Hall, Double Wedding Ring, (ca. 1940). Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Willia Etta Graham, Basket Improvisation (1981). Photo: Geoffry Johnson.

Willia Etta Graham, Basket Improvisation (1981). Photo: Geoffry Johnson.

Effie Jackson, Double Strip (ca. early 1940's).; quilted by Willia Etta Graham and Johnnie Wade, 1988. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Effie Jackson, Double Strip (ca. early 1940’s).; quilted by Willia Etta Graham and Johnnie Wade, 1988. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Kattie Pennington, Bow Tie Medallion (ca. 1985) quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1990. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Kattie Pennington, Bow Tie Medallion (ca. 1985) quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1990. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Lee Wanda Jones, Road to Nowhere (1988); quilted by Willia Etta Graham and Johnnie Wade. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Thirty-six Nine-patch (1996); quilted by Irene Bankhead. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, Thirty-six Nine-patch (1996); quilted by Irene Bankhead. Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

Arbie Williams, String Strip (1987). Photo: Geoffry Johnson.

Arbie Williams, String Strip (1987). Photo: Geoffry Johnson.

"Aunt" Jewell Harts, Giant Four-patch (1990). Photo: Sharon Risedorph.

“Aunt” Jewell Harts, Giant Four-patch (1990). Photo: Sharon Risedorph.


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