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?"

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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