Joe Cunningham, internationally recognized quilter

joe cunningham: the story of “missed”

By guest blogger Joe Cunningham—quilt maker, author, speaker and teacher.

SAN FRANCISCO CA  A few months ago I saw footage of some ISIS soldiers attacking the art in the palace of Nimrud, the Assyrian capital from 3,000 years ago. I found it so sad and upsetting that some people think that destroying our world cultural heritage somehow makes them better or more holy or something. Oh well, I thought, what can a quilter in San Francisco do about this?

That was when an idea struck me: that I had taken a picture already of a bas relief from the same palace! I thought: this is why you have a computerized longarm, a Handi Quilter with a Prostitcher—to quilt a picture of the same image, so that even if ISIS managed to destroy every rock carving, I would still have it on a quilt!

The Boston Museum of Fine Art has a few pieces of Assyrian art. Like this one:


Boston Museum of Fine Art: Bas Relief


Bas relief of a winged genius, 883–859 B.C. Near Eastern, Mesopotamian, Assyrian Neo-Assyrian Period, reign of Ashurnasirpal II

With the idea to quilt an image from the palace that was being destroyed, and this picture to draw into my computer, I started working on a quilt top. I knew I wanted a composition that would have a sort of protected refuge within it, surrounded by a chaotic environment and some suggestion of the horror show. Not something beautiful and elegant.

So I started cutting up some striped fabric I had found on a recent tour and sewing it back together to create some chaos. After I had a certain amount of new material created with the stripe, along with a sort of pink linen square for a central place, I could make an background that would work for my purpose.

Joe Cunningham: Progress of “Missed”

All it needed now was a red river encircling the shape:

Joe Cunningham: Progress of “Missed”

In order to make the quilted image square, I decided it needed the sort of floral border I had seen on other bas reliefs of the period. So I added a strip of that design along the left hand side.

Joe Cunningham: Progress of “Missed”

The bearded heads of these figures are heavily stylized:

Joe Cunningham: Progress of “Missed”

I loved working on the feathered wing designs, because the feathers were completely foreign to the quilt tradition of feather designs.

Joe Cunningham: Progress of “Missed”

And I learned that the software I was using to translate my drawings into quilting designs has an upper limit of complexity when I tried to fill an 18” square area with cuneiform. The computer froze. Only when I cut the design in half could the computer handle it:

Joe Cunningham: Progress of “Missed”

All I was trying to do was to render an image of the bas relief, not a duplicate. I allowed myself a fair amount of leeway in the translation from stone to quilting design because there were much different technical needs for each. I simply wanted to make a memorial image of the sculpture. The quilting ends up being difficult to see in most light, but is easily visible when the light is right.

“Missed” by Joe Cunningham

Missed 2015, 72" x 72"

What I am trying to do at all times is to expand the range of expression in my quilts. In my teaching, I am trying to help others do the same. I will never teach “Missed” in a lesson, but I can create an atmosphere where quilters can invent their own ways toward quiltistic freedom.

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