Joe Cunningham, internationally recognized quilter

creativity: it grows on trees

by guest blogger Joe Cunningham (aka Joe The Quilter)

SAN FRANCISCO CA  If you make things, people will often say to you: “Oh, you are so creative. I could never do that.”

I understand. Sometimes I feel like saying to my wife, the dancer turned Pilates trainer: “Oh, you are so physical. I could never do that.”

Porcupine Mountain Reconstructed quilt by Joe Cunningham

Well, the fact is that some people are more strongly gifted in certain areas than others. Having learned young not to trust my own body, I have lived most of my life as a sedentary—happy to be reading a book or making a quilt.

In the last ten years, however, I started taking Pilates classes or sessions once or twice a week. It has changed me. It turns out that while I am indeed far from talented in this area, I am not “unphysical” like I used to think. According to my wife I fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. She has clients much more agile and able to recall movements than me, and she has clients who will never be as agile and quick as me.

This is where most of us fall in most things: the middle of the pack. When it comes to doing something we haven’t done before, we only have two things going for us—our determination and our uniqueness. No one else has our set of internal images, preferences, gifts or experiences.

Still, it seems impossible to branch out from our standard approaches if we have never tried. Something that helped me take a new approach was getting a digital camera about 10 years ago. I have always loved photography and have admired and appreciated the work by my several photographer friends. But I have never wanted to be one, have never tried to be one. Without the burden of having anything to prove, I could just take pictures whenever I wanted. I could even just take notes with the thing.

Talk about fun. I learned that when I walked in the woods I could point my camera just about anywhere and come up with something beautiful, or at least something I liked to look at and that I could use in quiltmaking. What I have ended up doing is using pictures all the time to start me off in new directions. And then I simply trust that the directions I choose will reflect my own unique experiences and thoughts.

Here, for instance, is a picture of the eucalyptus leaves on my path when I walked to my studio this morning, and here is a quilt I made using a similar image as inspiration:

The Way Home quilt by Joe Cunningham

The Way Home 2006, 74 x 74, machine and hand appliqued cottons, hand quilted. Private collection

What I decided to do with this quilt was to simply applique leaves all over the honey-colored background until it was mostly covered. For the bottom I just scribbled with ¼” bias tape, to suggest everything I wanted to suggest about the way home.

Now what I do is the same thing as most people: I just whip out my phone and snap pics all day long. What I am looking for, however is material I can use in quilting, either compositionally, or for subject matter or even simply for color. Here are a few pictures I took this morning on my way to work:


Photo by Joe Cunningham

Even with my thumb over part of it, I love what is happening here. The combination of the straight brick lines and the yellow shapes, the birds and their shadows--there is a lot for me to work with. Just the idea that I could have two regular sections like the bricks that collide is a great idea for a quilt composition. The birds with their shadows could be transcribed verbatum for an applique project. And the colors alone, the brick, the yellow and the gray--would be an interesting set of colors to work with.


Photo by Joe Cunningham

This is the pedestal for a gas station sign, recently rebuilt, awaiting its final finish. To me it is a glorious set of ideas for quilting. The hexagonal chicken wire shapes appearing and disappearing, the now horizontal, now vertical trowel marks, the plywood with its deep black shadow edges—all are individual things I could use, and altogether make a design I could lift directly for a quilting grid.

Or how about these colors?

Photo by Joe Cunningham

And my favorite pic of the day, from the sidewalk just outside my studio. It is an old record of the Medical Mission Sisters of Philadelphia. I love the title, “JOY IS LIKE THE RAIN.” It is? I suppose that means it can rain down on one.

Photo by Joe Cunningham

If that is true, then I think I find joy like the rain when I make quilts. And since we are in a drought here in San Francisco, joy could indeed be like the rain. Rain would be joyous. Just like the album says: “You will not be able to forget JOY IS LIKE THE RAIN.” This is a title I could use to start a quilt with. I could start out with this idea and see what it ended up looking like.

These are the sorts of things I collect and use in my quiltmaking. I like to find the striking image in my everyday world and learn from it, store it away for future use, or simply enjoy it and have that feeling when I start a new project. And as long as I use my own photos for inspiration, my quilts will tend to look like mine, and no one else’s. Like I said in the beginning, that is all I have.

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