Eli Leon, the man who helped to bring African American Quilts
Quilt making worlds.Thus putting them on the map as true art.
Read more about his work at:
He championed and promoted African American Improvisational quilts when they were the underdogs in both the Art and Quilt Worlds. Eli traveled to
This page on our blog is dedicated to Eli Leon and all that he has accomplished.We hope that you enjoy the following chronicles of his amazing detective like research as much as our family has. We applaud his sincere efforts and dedication to the cause of uncovering and bringing to the world's attention the arts and skills that have been passed down to us via six generations of our ancestors...as well as the many generations that have embellished the lineages of other African American families nationwide. We also thank him for nominating....Laverne Brackens, for the 2011 NEA Folk art Fellowship Award....making her the first quilt maker to receive this award in the state of Texas.
We sincerely hope that you will enjoy and get much inspiration from the following chronicles of his efforts to capture the legacies of some of the amazing quilts in his Internationally renowned collection. The quilts are important to this collector...but the legacy behind the art work is even more intriguing to him, and well worth the hunt ,as the following chronicles reveal. ENJOY!!!!
IN HIS OWN WORDS
.Strip Quilt, Mary Lue Brown, 1940s Photo
I zipped across the flea market, my extra-large shopping cart bouncing behind me, and bought the quilt out from around Alberta. I'd arrived in the nick of time. Alberta and her friend Betty, who turned out to be the quilt's owner, were about to get rained out. Thrilled to find what I considered to be a repository of Africanisms so close to what I assumed was the quilt's community of origin, I readied pencil and paper to take notes and started firing questions. Needless to say, I was crestfallen to discover that
Within a decade, this quilt would dazzle the American museum-going public in Who'd a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quilt making--my first cataloged exhibition of African-American quilts, whose twenty-some-odd venues would include the Renwick gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, Chicago's Field Museum, and the American Craft Museum in New York City. Paired with a strip woven Hausa cloth from West Africa that makes use of a similar randomized checkerboard pattern, it would grace the cover of my second catalog, Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork. And, although I would make repeated research / collecting trips to East Texas, Northern Louisiana and Southern Arkansas (the region from which most of my California quilt making contacts had migrated), and see hundreds of improvisational African-American quilts, Mother Brown's would remain my best example of a "two-pair" bordering arrangement, thereby providing critical support for one of my strongest arguments for African antecedents.1 In short, once its origins were established, this quilt would be of particular importance to my work; I couldn't have been more disheartened by the news that Alberta and Betty had no clue as to who made it.
When told of my belief that the quilt was African-American,
Although the rain got steadily worse, I was unable to tear myself from the spot. I hung around, sinking onto a folding chair and asking pesky questions while
Many "anonymous" quilts would be reclaimable as the products of black craftspeople if I were able to engage all of the gatekeepers encountered along the way (in this case, as we shall see, I was dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of five separate informants, six if I count Alberta and Betty as two), but most of my collecting stories don't turn out this well. The search ends when I can't overcome suspicion or indifference at one or another critical point.
Betty turned the catalog over to me. Contacting Butterfields, I was soon informed that I was wasting both my time and theirs. The last thing I might expect, I was roundly assured, was for an auction house to be giving out the names of its sellers. I insisted on speaking to someone in authority and, eventually, was put in touch with a woman who gave me the time to explain that I was writing a book about African survivals in African-American quilts, that this particular quilt evidenced several such survivals, and that it would be of little use to me without its history. Sympathetic to my mission, the woman agreed to look the sale up. (A year or two later, in my attempt to reclaim the heritage of another stray quilt, I tried this again, found that my helper at Butterfields had moved on, butted against a wall of impatience and sarcasm, and had no choice but to give up the quest).
This was a peak experience for me. My audience couldn't have been readier for the theory of African influence. Quite aside from which, even if I were to get no further, I now had some measure of authentication.
But I was on a roll. My latest helper called the daughter-in-law of the old man who had once owned the quilt and got permission for me to talk to her myself. Lodesta, as it turned out, was delighted to hear from me. She'd worried about the family's quilts and was relieved to learn that this one had found a good home. We arranged for me to bring it across the Bay that next day for a hands-on identification. She was amused when she saw it. Turned out, it was the quilt they used the most. Kept it on the sofa to wrap up in while watching T.V. Called it "the loud quilt."
There had been several other, "better," quilts that had been sold as higher class merchandise in another section of the auction. I tried to track them down but in each case the buyer refused to talk to me. Mine, according to Lodesta, was made by Mother Brown, a woman who'd had a special relationship with the quilt's owner, Lodesta's now-deceased mother-in-law, Helen.
Here's the story. In the 1930's, Helen had gone to
Lodesta put me in touch with Elfreda, Mother Brown's now elderly daughter, living in
1. For a comprehensive discussion of the borders of improvisational African-American quilts and their African counterparts, see
By Eli Leon
Early in 1986, quilt maker Bettie Phillips (1916--2005) http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=3339 told me about her ninety-two year old friend ,Mrs. Mable Murphy (1894--1996), who lived in the little town of Dos Palos, California and had a house full of quilts, many of which were for sale. Bettie estimated there to be at least fifty and raved about their great beauty. I wanted to meet Mrs. Murphy (as she preferred to be called) right away, of course, but there turned out to be obstacles. Mrs. Murphy was hard-of-hearing, for one. Unable to understand me when I telephoned, she had her son, a smoker, handle the call. When I mentioned that I had a cigarette-smoke allergy, he got enraged and hung up. On top of that, my car became mysteriously unreliable. The meeting with Mrs. Murphy, it seemed, would have to wait for more favorable conditions.
Then Bettie informed me that Mrs. Murphy was giving up her house for smaller quarters. In all probability some of her quilts would be inaccessible after the move. For them, it was now or never. I had, meanwhile, learned that Mrs. Murphy's son didn't actually live with her, although he was often around. I'd also changed cars. So I tried to get Bettie to make the trip with me, imagining that having her along would smooth the way, but she showed no interest in the project. Resolving to take my chances and just go didn't work either; it only led to my feeling guilty whenever Mrs. Murphy came to mind, which was often, since my strategically placed to-do list was headlined "INTERVIEW MRS MURPHY."
When I asked quilt maker Willia Ette Graham (1903-1997) http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=4171, however, if she'd like to visit an elderly quilter in the San Joaquin valley, she jumped at the chance. Suddenly everything was looking up. Graham was warm, friendly and generally relaxed. The thought of her supportive presence was all I needed to lend courage to my convictions. I called Bettie to tell her that Willia Ette and I were hoping to give it a go that Monday, which happened to be a holiday, and Bettie did an abrupt turnabout; she would accompany me after all. Springing into action, she straightaway called Mrs. Murphy, ascertained that the son wouldn't be around that day, and made all the arrangements--even deciding to fix a bring-along lunch featuring fried chicken and homemade cake.
Why the sudden change? It baffled me for a moment, then I got it. Bettie was as eager to meet Willia Ette as Willia Ette was to meet Mrs Murphy! This expedition was taking on a new character. For some years I'd been listening to my informants' lamentations on the scarcity of quilt makers in the California cities they'd found themselves in after their westward migrations. They were longing to meet one another! And witnessing these meetings might very well be as informative for me as interviewing Mrs. Murphy.
I now wanted to include Gussie Wells http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=3345 and Arbie Williams http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=2169, two of my closest quilt maker contacts, in what was promising to be a memorable get-together, but there wasn't room for five in my car. When I floated the idea past Bettie, though, she immediately latched on to it. Again, I was taken by surprise. Why the rush of enthusiasm? But we needed a few more participants, I finally realized, for a critical mass. Wells and Williams were best buddies, however; we couldn't invite one without the other. After mulling the thing over, Bettie and I decided to go ahead with the invitations. If both of them accepted, we'd devise a new plan.Quilts, Eli Leon, Improvisational, Afro-American, Quilts, Rosie L American, Eli y (continued)
Bettie volunteered to drive, but her car was no bigger than mine. The obvious solution would be to go in two cars but, not wanting to miss any of the fireworks I was anticipating, I was intent on all of us riding together. As it turned out, Gussie (1901-1994) could not make it. Arbie (1916--2003), however, was raring to go. Right off the bat, she notified me that she would be wearing pants. I dutifully passed this information on to Bettie and Willia Ette.
So, on Jan 19th, 1987, Martin Luther King Jr's fifty-eighth birthday, the bunch of us assembled on the sidewalk in front of Phillips' house. At the last minute, Bettie announced that she was taking her car after all. She never went anywhere, she informed us, without her deaf-mute sister, quilt maker Missie Freeman (1914--2005). I had no choice but to take the two-car solution in stride. Meanwhile, the women were bustling with excitement and getting acquainted before leaving. An aroma of fried chicken filled the air. Everyone but Missie was wearing pants.
With wistful goodbyes and much slamming of car doors, we finally set off. Arbie, Willia Ette and I followed Bettie and Missie in the slow lane of the freeway at such a crawl that I ,(then a mere fifty-one years old and feeling like an eager teenager) expected any minute to be pulled over by the highway patrol. The time, however, passed quickly. Williams was a scintillating talker, Graham was an enthusiastic listener, and I got to be a fly on the wall. I was not surprised to discover an aspect of Williams’Quilt making history that I hadn't accessed in our prior conversations. Turned out, as a young woman living in a railroad worker's community in
“Well our idea was we’d [piece] all the quilts we could in the winter and wouldn' let either one know what we were buildin' on. If one come to the house and you was piecin' quilts, you'd roll it up and put it in a bag and shove it up under the bed right quick 'fore you let 'em come in. They didn' get to see what you were piecin.'” Arbie explained .
In the spring and summer, the eight women would assemble at one of their houses and quilt all day, easily completing two quilts a session. By 1945, when Arbie and her husband moved west to take advantage of the high-paying war-industry jobs that were springing up in
When we arrived at Mrs. Murphy's, we found a spry, high-spirited lady, who seemed much younger than her ninety-three years, waiting to greet us at the front door. She steered a little clear of me at first, but, taking her cues from the other women, soon accepted me as part of the crowd. I wondered how long she'd been standing watch. She must have been as deprived of quilt maker companionship as the rest of the company.
Plus, this was to be her red-letter day. This bevy of quilt aficionados were keyed to sustain an undying interest in her handwork as we emptied closets, drawers and trunks, bringing out dolls, beadwork, endless crocheted objects (my favorite was a miniature soup bowl and spoon in red thread), and quilts, quilts, quilts.
Williams, African American, Eli Leon.
All of these women were so passionate about their craft that it had taken over the better part of their living quarters; they must have felt right at home. No matter how often I encountered a house full of quilts, however, this guided tour of an artist's life work would remain a special treat. And this time it would be in the most distinguished of companies.
As for my nostalgic companions, this get-together was providing a direct line to their roots. In their formative years in rural Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma, quilt making had largely been a communal activity; six participants would comprise only a modest bee. Now light years from the rural 1940s South, where virtually all of the neighbor women could be expected to quilt, these women were compelled to work singly or, at best, in pairs.
So they lived it up as I, with Willia Ette's unsparing help and frequent visits from the rest of the company, went to town. We were extremely thorough, emptying each storage space entirely before refilling it with carefully examined goods. In a few hours we'd, in all probability, seen everything. Mrs. Murphy's recent works were splendid examples of highly complex published patterns expertly repeated over king-sized surfaces in consistent color schemes requiring great quantities of store-bought fabric. She sold these professional-level wares through a connection in
Willia Ette was the only one who was as intent as I on not missing a trick. Or maybe it was this shyness that had come over her today--which I'd never seen when the two of us were alone. She painstakingly undid the ties of a mountain of plastic bags of cloth scraps and went through each one to find an occasional pieced section of quilt top. I found a completed older top that very much interested me, and which was for sale, among the unfinished pieces, a Lone Star with Maple Leaf Corners later quilted by Irene Bankhead http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=3347 and pictured in Let It Shine (exhibit catalog) Fig. 13.
|Lone Star with Maple Leaf Corners|
created by Mable Murphy
Owner Eli Leon
Mrs Murphy's grandmother lived to be emancipated, but was not able to find a single one of the thirteen (of her sixteen) children who'd been sold away from her, their names changed as they passed from owner to owner. It is this background of dehumanization, I imagine, that makes a respectful form of address so essential to her granddaughter.
After lunch we moved on to other things. Arbie copied one of Mrs Murphy's crochet patterns, under Missie's vigilant supervision. Missie, who'd been profoundly deaf since birth and communicated with nods, gestures and grunts, would issue a volley of wordless admonitions each time Arbie slipped up, then smile when she finally got it right. Willia Ette wanted to buy a pair of Mrs Murphy's crocheted shoes, but Mrs Murphy didn't have them in her size. Bettie borrowed a Maple Leaf from Mrs Murphy's collection of sample blocks; I noted that it was pieced of fabric that was at least seventy years old. At all times there was too much going on for one person to keep track of, but it was an ongoing joy to watch these elderly, uprooted women connect through their shared interests and an affinity for an art form that I suspected had origins in their ancestral homelands.
Eventually it was time to go. Bettie and Missie went on to see other friends in Dos Palos, and Arbie, Willia Ette and I scooted off and into the fast lane of the freeway with Mrs Murphy's invitations to return ringing in our ears. For most of the trip home we were silent. We had finally run down.
Then too, we had a lot to think about. I don't know about Arbie and Willia Ette, but I couldn't get the thirteen missing children out of my mind.
|NEA 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Award photo |
|Example of Laverne Brackens Numbers Quilt Design.|
|Off Set Blocks by Laverne Brackens.|
"Oh she did go wild on these," Williams exclaimed. "Bless her heart. Now that's a real heart breaker there. She wants it different from what she's seen it, so that's the reason you see so much of them flashing with different corners. She don't want to do what the next woman is doing. so she doos it of her own. Where's she from, Texas? Oh God. I sure want to go see her when I go there."
" I don't go by patterns. I make it up out of my head. When you pick up the material and start working with it,
that's when you know what [the quilt] will be."
Kate Brown in WordPress.com's Thoughts Not Mine: The Monkey wrench Emporium, quotes:
"If you piece them all where they hit right together, every quilt you piece is going to look just alike,
and if you twist it up a little bit you will make the quilt look different. I just like to take a simple quilt
and give it a different look."
"[Brackens] can cut out the pieces for three quilt tops in a day and 'go back the next day and maybe do two of them'."
Brackens was "tickled to death". " I sleep under that quilt," she reported. "Only time that quilt's off of my
bed is when I wash it and put it up in the Spring. I just love it." She got teary-eyed talking about it: "Cause
it's my granddaughter that made it. Usually, the rest of them is always saying, 'Granny, can I have a quilt?"
|Gladys Cellia Durham-Henry|
(Born 1906-Died 1996)
|Gladys was a self taught crafts person at heart. She created many |
and varied items, on a continual basis, through out her entire life span.
|Side I of "Jazz With A Needle and Thread" reversible|
story quilt composed by Sherry A. Byrd features items created by
her grandmother Gladys C. Durham-Henry (Born 1906-Died 1996).
|Broken Dishes Pattern|
|Most Prolific Titus Family Quilt Maker|
|Sherry A. Byrd|
Storyteller/Writer/Quilt maker/Folk artist
|Sherry the Researcher|
|Sherry the Storyteller/Folk artist and Chronicler of|
Oldest daughter of Sherry A. Byrd
Eli Leon (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Awards: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, 1989.
Surface Design Association Critical Writing Award for the development and application of critical vocabulary in the field of surface design, 1990.
Something Pertaining to God: The Patchwork Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins. Shelburne Museum., Shelburne, Vermont, May-Oct, 2007.
Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African-American Quilts,
Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Four Generations of African-American Quilt- makers. Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco, 2006; Brattleboro Museum, Brattleboro, VT, Aug-Nov 2007.
Improving the Bow Tie.
"Too Short to Save: African-American Improvisational String Quilts," in A Report from the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2002
Let It Shine: Improvisation in African-American Star Quilts (exhibition catalog),
Review of My Quilts and Me: The Diary of an American Quilter by Nora McKeown Ezell, in Tributaries: Journal of the
No Two Alike: African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern (exhibition catalog),
"African Influence on the American Block-style Quilt," in Sally Gant, ed.,African Impact on the Material Culture of the Americas (collected symposium papers), Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Old Salem Inc., Winston-Salem, NC, 1998.
Something Else to See: Improvisational Bordering Styles in African-American Quilts (exhibition catalog),
"Shadows of the Divine Perfection," in
"Showing Up": African-American Maximum-contrast Quilts (exhibition catalog), Richmond Art Center, 1996.
Arbie Williams Transforms the Britches Quilt (exhibition catalog),
Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork (exhibition catalog),
"Cross-strip Patterning in African Textiles and African-American Quilts," Surface Design Journal, Vol.15, #1, Fall, 1990, pp.6-8,38.
Who'd a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking (exhibition catalog), Introduction by Robert Farris Thompson,
"Wrapping Home Around Me: How the Patchwork Quilt became a Medium for the Expression of African Values," in Rambling On My Mind (exhibition catalog),
Sunshine and Surprises: African American Quilts from the Eli Leon and Robert Cargo Collections. Festival of Quilts, Birmingham, UK. Aug 16-19, 2007.
Something Pertaining to God: The Patchwork Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins .Shelburne Museum.,
Approximate Measure: Improvisational African-American Quilts. Shirley/Jones Gallery,
Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African-American Quilts,
Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Four Generations of African-American Quiltmakers.Museum of Craft and Folk Art,
Let It Shine: Improvisation in African-American Star Quilts, William D. Cannon Art Gallery, Carlsbad, CA, Sept-Nov 2001; Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum, June-Sept 2002; Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum, Feb-March 2003; New England Quilt Museum, Sept-Nov 2003; New York State Museum, Jan-March 2004
No Two Alike: African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern, South Carolina State Museum, Oct 1998-March 1999; Vermont Folklife Center, Sept-Nov 1999; Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum, Jan-March 2000; National Afro-American Museum, April-June 2001; Santa Rosa Junior College, Feb-March 2003.
Quilts from the 'Hood: East Bay African American Improvisational Quilts, The
Something Else to See: Improvisational Bordering Styles in African-American Quilts,
No Two Alike: Improvisational African-American Quilts,
"Showing Up": African-American Maximum-contrast Quilts,
Arbie Williams Transforms the Britches Quilt, University of California, Santa Cruz, Nov-Dec 1993; Berkeley Art Center, April-June, 1994.
Putting the Pieces Together: Patchwork Quilts by Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century Migrants to California, Falkirk Cultural Center, San Rafael, CA, Sept-Nov, 1993.
Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork,
Who'd a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking.
Venues for Who'd a Thought It:
San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum, January-February, 1988.
San Jose Museum of Art, March-April, 1988.
Louisiana Arts and Science Center, Baton Rouge, July-Sept, 1989.
New England Quilt Museum, Lowell, MA, Sept-Nov, 1989.
Morris Museum, Morristown, NJ, February-April, 1990.
California Council for the Humanities, Oakland City Center, "A Sense of Belonging/A Sense of Place," May-June, 1990.
Old Pueblo Museum, Tuscon, AZ, July-September, 1990.
Indianapolis Museum of Art, February-March, 1991.
Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA, June-August, 1991.
Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Wash., D.C., Sept-Jan, 91-2.
Photos provided by Eli Leon, Tom Pich and Sherry A. Byrd
Other good reading on Eli Leon Quilt Collection.