Dynamic Tension

Quilt by Rosie Lee Tompkins
Quilt by Rosie Lee Tompkins

Of all the many highlights of my life as a quilter and a quilt preserver, being contacted by Eli Leon was the highlight of all highlights.

I can’t remember when I received a message from the person I had purchased most of my African-American quilts …….. it must have been 2011 or 2012 because my husband was still home and he wasn’t in horribly bad shape. That I can remember.

I was told that Eli Leon wanted to speak to me. Well, who’s Eli Leon? He’s only the most important researcher, preserver and most knowledgable person in the world about African-American quilts. It seems I had purchased a quilt made by someone from Hilton Head, SC and Eli wanted to know what happened to that quilt. He wanted to include its history in a book he was writing. He was hard on the trail.

Although I could help him, I had sold the quilt on many years before. I didn’t keep any of my priceless quilts, needing the money to support my family and after all, I was a quilt dealer, not a quilt keeper. He also thought that I had a different quilt from the one I had. But even so, he needed desperately to know what I did with that quilt. If you want to know more, Eli has a website that is fascinating with its level of knowledge concerning his collection – here http://www.elileon.com and it is worth a visit. His collecting notes are superb and his information has been published in several books – all of which are in my cart for purchase ASAP.

I have a catalog from the exhibition of Rosie Lee Tompkins quilts put on by Eli. It is the highlight of my collection.

Rosie Lee Tompkins
Rosie Lee Tompkins

It is hard to explain my love for African-American quilts. The movement, the color, the sheer improvisation, the abstractions, the construction techniques, the sheer joy that comes out of every piece – so hard to understand why these appeal to me much more than traditional Anglo-American quilts. But they do. And as an art quilter, that’s where I run into what I call “dynamic tension.”

I am a precise person. You can show me something and I will tell you its dimensions down to the last 1/8″. I can spot something out of plumb from a distance of 20 feet. If something isn’t level, it drives me crazy. There is symmetry in my soul. And yet, I love the free wheeling, imprecise appeal of African-American quilts. And I seek that imprecision in my own work. I fight myself. All the time.

I’ve been working on three pieces from my hand dyed fabrics, as well as pieces I am enhancing with pastels. The first, which is not yet sewn together, is this:


I began this with a concept in mind. Tiles. That was it. Just tiles. And it fulfills that urge to make tiles out of fabric. But it is too precise. It isn’t sewn together yet because it is not “done” in my mind. It is what I started out to create, but it is not what I want to create. So it waits – waits for more movement, more improvisation, less precision.

My other two pieces have barely begun. One is random-sized rectangles and the other resembles pieces cut like this:

Jessie T. Pettway (b.1929) Bars and string-pieced columns, 1950s, cotton, 95 x 76 inches
Jessie T. Pettway (b.1929) Bars and string-pieced columns,                 1950s, cotton, 95 x 76 inches

There is still a question as to how these will go together. I don’t know yet – I can’t know yet. I need to see them sewn first and then I can place them.

But when I go to cut my pieces, my old precision comes into play. It is like the 800 lb gorilla in my studio – always there causing me no end of grief.

I woke this morning thinking about my quilts, as I do. And I thought about my need for precision and my need for improvisation and how the hell I’m going to blend the two of them. And I stopped.

All of a sudden it hit me that I cannot stop the two of them playing with me. I cannot stop being precise and yet imprecise at the same time. It is who I am. I am a conservative (precise) person who is also way out there in cloud cuckoo land most of the time. My mother would make little circling motions with her finger pointed at her head were she here to do so. Cuckoo, she’d say, cuckoo.

So stay tuned if you want to see who wins. Miss Proper or Miss Way Out There. Somehow I think Miss Way Out There has the lead right now.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jennifer says:

    You’re welcome! I love African American quilts …….


  2. dear_chickie says:

    I really enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing!


  3. Oh, woman, the Way Out There will always win, even if you don’t realize it. I can’t wait to see what you do. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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