I learned about the life and quilts of Rosie Lee Tompkins (the pseudonym of Effie Mae Howard) from my mother. She was an art teacher—my art teacher—and would routinely give short presentations about local artists, usually women, to teach her students about art made in Northern California. I knew that Tompkins was born in Arkansas in the 1930s, had settled in Richmond, California, and that her work was considered part of an African American quilting tradition, but I had never seen the quilts in person until early March 2020, when I visited the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) to view “Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective.” The previous day, the Grand Princess cruise ship had pulled into the Port of Oakland carrying thousands of passengers exposed to the novel coronavirus; I walked through the museum in suspense, my thinking fragmented by constant notifications about the future. Yet Tompkins’s quilts pulled me into the present: I was mesmerized by the nearly seventy works on display, which revealed her fascination with color, the consistency of her inconsistency, and her use of fabrics that carried with them generational shorthands depending on pattern, texture, and material.

Nearly a year later, a small selection of Tompkins’s works at Anthony Meier Fine Arts in San Francisco is the first exhibition I’ve visited in person since the BAMPFA retrospective. The show features seven quilts which, like those I’d seen at the museum, are intricate, deeply considered, masterful works. The quilt from 2004 that greets me, facing the entrance (all works are untitled), is a brown, black, and creamy orange rectangle with a checkered pattern. Gathered enough on the lower right corner for it to hang sculpturally, the rectangle seems to be turning up the corner of its lip, smirking. Orange yarn sprays playfully out of the center of each check, like false eyelashes after a Halloween party: erratic, slightly bent.

In the hallway, a horizontal quilt made between 2005 and 2006—less orderly than the first—incorporates silk ties in their traditional business palette, red cotton, slivers of denim, and a large piece of printed holiday fabric. Notes of biblical passages are embroidered in a shade that can only be described as “Christmas Green,” and a white cross is affixed, slightly off center. An incongruous element emerges upon close looking: a small bright green price tag that, at some point, by someone, was attached to the cookie fabric using a tagging gun and plastic barb. That the dangling accessory, typically yanked out of clothing, has been left in is a gesture at once playful and enigmatic.

Mounted across from the “Christmas Green” composition is a larger vertical quilt with houndstooth squares, patches of deep red and light yellow, brown velvet, and a distinctive triangle from a vintage floral tablecloth. The range of fabrics—again dotted with yarn fringe—is framed by material in a red, white, and blue design featuring Budweiser cans. Tompkins’s choice to mix these particular patterns situates the piece squarely in the 1970s; it is because of her genius combining of patterns, forms, and narrative that the quilt now stands as a generational flag. Tompkins has also identified the value in these scraps, tapping into a creative tradition that Sister Corita Kent noted in her 1992 workshop book, Learning by Heart: “Artists, poets—whatever you want to call those people whose job is ‘making’—take in the commonplace and are forever recognizing it as worthwhile.”

The show’s most striking work is a rectangular valentine of red, pink, black, white, and purple squares cut from cotton underwear. The shapes resemble plots of land seen from above; instead of fences, Tompkins separates the squares with the lavender and white elastic waistbands, including the logo of American clothing company Hanes and narrowly legible tagline: “Hanes her way.” Embroidered over the underwear are three black crosses, the artist’s name, and several references to passages from the Bible. The dominant crosses that are affixed onto the intimate cotton creates a playful juxtaposition of the sacred with the ordinary. As is the case in much of Tompkins’s work, the joy and lightheartedness at play in her subversive humor simultaneously conveys a powerful aura of devotion. Indeed, my experience of her work was one of being summoned into the present. Through the application of an intricate visual language and a prodigious imagination to disparate source materials, Tompkins brings the world into a new and sharper focus.