joe cunningham: freedom seeker :: Okan Arts
joe cunningham: freedom seeker

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 CunninghamThey 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 (see left).

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. (+click here to see a 1.5 hour video of Joe performing his musical). 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 CunninghamQuilts 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

It’s my pleasure to know Joe and partner with him for our annual Quilt Retreat on the Hood Canal in Washington state. At the Retreat, participants try new ways of putting fabric together, while smiling and laughing for four days straight. I hope you can join us one year.

To read a great newspaper article written about Joe in 2001 +click here

To visit Joe’s website +click here

To see all the books that Joe has written +click here

To learn more about Joe’s Quilt Retreat +click here

To see Joe’s Craftsy class +click here

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6 comments to “joe cunningham: freedom seeker”

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

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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.

  2. Margo Piikkila says:

    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 says:

      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.

  3. Heidi Weiland says:

    Any scheduled for 2017?

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