Improvisation with Needle and Thread
Imagine a field of study that requires information that can’t be found in a book, archive, or art museum. There’s no conventional way to gather samples. Tracking down exemplary specimens can involve con men and bribery.
Welcome to the world of Eli Leon ’57, who has carved out a niche as a leading scholar and curator of improvisational African-American quilts.
Leon, who majored in psychology at Reed and has an M.A. in psychology from the University of Chicago, has published numerous books on the subject and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989 to further his study.
Early on, Leon focused his collecting efforts on quilts more familiar to Euro-Americans, in which the fabric patches are painstakingly measured, and stitches are tiny and even. His focus shifted in 1981, though, when a “quilts wanted” ad in an Oakland newspaper led him to a quilt that defied everything he thought he knew about the craft. That’s when Leon traded a leather jacket for the address of a reputed con artist—the son of the remarkable quilt’s maker—in an effort to learn more about its origins (improvisational quilts are often sold at auction without attribution to their makers).
Quilts like the one Leon happened upon in 1981 have been likened to jazz, gospel music, and the blues, for departing from rigid repetition and for embodying the personal preferences of the maker. Arbie Williams, a National Heritage Award-winning quilter, once told Leon: “If you get discomfortable with something you’re making . . . just cut it down the middle and send it to the other side.”
Quilters discovered by Leon, such as Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936–), who grew up in a large family where poverty demanded that every scrap of cloth be put to use, express themselves piece by piece in patchworks. Leon says these quilts and quilters have changed the way he thinks about art. “The revelation that a body of work seen by the dominant culture as nothing but failed attempts to meet that culture’s rigid standards is, on the contrary, a powerful and sophisticated art form with its own ideals and conventions, affected me deeply,” he says. “The growth process I’ve undergone to transcend my culture-boundedness has been exhilarating.”