Joe Cunningham, aka Joe The Quilter

joe cunningham: freedom seeker

By Patricia Belyea

SAN FRANCISCO CA  For once I was in the City of Lights at the same time as quilting luminary Joe Cunningham. To visit Joe at his studio south of Market Street, I passed through a locked gate, crossed a small concrete courtyard, and climbed a few wooden steps to enter a workspace he shares with painter Gwen Terpstra.

Studio of Joe Cunningham :: Joe The Quilter

It didn't take long to tour Joe’s area—a few tables for his sewing machine and computer, adjacent to a mammoth design wall; a small room filled with a huge Handi Quilter; and a storage space where quilts hung on wooden dowels between two tall bookcases laden with fabrics and folded quilts.

Studio of Joe Cunningham :: Joe The Quilter

For our time together, Joe talked about what compels him to quilt. Madly taking notes, here’s a transcription of our conversation: “Once I learned how to make traditional quilts, I decided to fulfill my own destiny by striking out on my own. I wanted to honor the quilting women of the 19th century. To truly honor them, I needed to do what they made possible for all of us to do—to make quilts any way we wanted.

This Is A Quilt, Not Art quilt by Joe Cunningham

They didn’t receive a set of instructions. That was the most important part of the tradition. There was risk in what they did. For me, that meant what came from my heart might not be crowd-pleasing or welcomed in the marketplace.

My first divergent piece was called This Is A Quilt, Not Art. It was a take on a lindsey-woolsey, made from Hawaiian shirt fabrics.

When I left Michigan, I decided I was going to do what I always wanted to do: GET SERIOUS. I wanted to use traditional quilt aesthetics, ideas and strategies, and be completely original.

For my one-man musical, Joe The Quilter, I made a collection of neoclassical quilts that were completely traditional and completely original.  When I finished the sixth quilt, I knew I was at the end of that series.

Joe The Quilter Musical by Joe Cunningham

Then I decided to do something completely different. At the time, I was picking up eucalyptus leaves while walking home. I decided to appliqué the leaf shapes onto a background. Then I added some brown striped fabric to the bottom. At Britex, I found a SPOOL of bias tape. My idea: I could scribble with the bias tape and imitate the roads in the Presidio—like I was using a “planning pen.”

The Way Home quilt by Joe Cunningham

Called The Way Home, I was metaphorically finding my new home. It did not look like anything anyone had ever made before.

Then I wanted to do a quilt with the simplest of lines. I made three in a series with horizontal lines. My model was notebook paper.

Striped quilt by Joe Cunningham

Quilts are often about “maximum technique”—how many pieces can be perfectly arranged or how realistic a picture can be rendered. Quilts are often made to impress others; or made to be something beautiful; or made to show off the knowledge of the quilter.

Instead I wanted to be totally free. That was a big risk and maybe alienating to the quilt world. When will I have stepped too far?

I want to pursue my real self. Every day I look at the world and wonder: What does that mean? How can I use that?"

Quilt by Joe Cunningham :: Joe The QuilterQuilt by Joe Cunningham :: Joe The QuilterQuilt by Joe Cunningham :: Joe The Quilter Quilt by Joe Cunningham :: Joe The Quilter Quilt by Joe Cunningham :: Joe The Quilter Quilt by Joe Cunningham :: Joe The Quilter Quilt by Joe Cunningham :: Joe The Quilter

Before I left, Joe starting pinning random (or perhaps, well-chosen) swaths of fabric around a central piece filled with red bias-tape houses. If you know Joe, you'd recognize his self-satisfied murmuring as he got to work: “Oh, yeah. Uh-ha.”

In the studio of Joe Cunningham: Joe The Quilter


You may also like

my one-yard challenge
my one-yard challenge
By Patricia Belyea WAUCONDA WA  I challenged myself to make a baby quilt using just one yard of yukata cotton and sti...
Read More
four garden quilts
four garden quilts
By Patricia Belyea WAUCONDA WA  On April 13, Jane Sassaman wrote this Instagram post: I have put together a few texti...
Read More
joe cunningham: quiltmaking as a way to be free
joe cunningham: quiltmaking as a way to be free
By Joe Cunningham SAN FRANCISCO  When I started making quilts 40 years ago I learned that there were certain tech...
Read More
allie aller: the happy quilter
allie aller: the happy quilter
Editor Note: I asked Allison Aller what makes her happy. Allie had lots to say about this topic! PB By Allison Aller,...
Read More
iron talk
iron talk
By Patricia Belyea WAUCONDA WA  Last week my iron gushed all over a quilt project. The good news—it wasn’t rusty wate...
Read More
yukata cotton devotees
yukata cotton devotees
By Patricia Belyea WAUCONDA WA  At Okan Arts, our big thing is vintage Japanese yukata cottons. We’re crazy about the...
Read More


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published


6 comments


  • Patricia Belyea
    Heidi, You bet. Check out https://okanarts.com/learn/joe-retreat for the dates for the next Joe Retreat. PB

  • Heidi Weiland
    Any scheduled for 2017?

  • Patricia Belyea
    Margo—Great to hear from you. I will add the link to Joe’s Craftsy class shortly. Joe and I are scheduled to run a 2016 Retreat on the Hood Canal, so keep your eyes open for that. And we’ll continue into the future if all the stars continue to align. Best, P.

  • Margo Piikkila
    Patricia: very enjoyable to follow you as you travel and interview the most interesting people. Their stories are inspiring to me. There isn’t just one way to quilt or to sew or to make any kind of art; even if you don’t think quilts are art – we can see beauty in the inspiration, vision and creativity of the maker.

    I am a student in Joe’s Craftsy.com class and I haven’t begun yet to choose and cut my fabric. I can’t wait for the day I can get going on it. I wondered if you wanted perhaps to also put a link to his Craftsy class here. Up to you.

    I hope one day to see you and to meet him at the Hood Canal Retreat. I hope you are continuing those into the next few years.

    Happy creating, whatever and however it happens! Kind regards, Margo (Victoria) BC Canada


  • Patricia Belyea
    Terry—It’s always my pleasure to spend time with Joe. This time I took notes so I could share his vision with others. P.

  • Terry Waldron
    That was just brilliant! Thank you for this amazing “interview,” Patricia.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published