Joe Cunningham




Joe Cunningham


Noted quiltmaker Joe Cunningham describes his evolving philosophy of the intersections among quilts, art, and tradition. He elaborates on how he began quilting in 1979, collaborating with Gwen Marston and learning from Mary Schafer. He discusses Amish quilts, a subject he has written about at length through his work with the Esprit Quilt Collection.




Male quiltmakers


Joe Cunningham


Janneken Smucker

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nine Patch Fabrics


San Francisco, California


Janneken Smucker (JS): Good afternoon, this is Janneken Smucker. I'm here with Joe Cunningham, who has graciously agreed to be interviewed as part of Quilters' [S.O.S.-] Save Our Stories. Today is August 18th, [2007.], and we are in Joe's studio in San Francisco, California. Thanks so much for agreeing to meet with me today.

Joe Cunningham (JC): You're welcome.

JS: I'm really happy to have met you this weekend, and I look forward to getting to know you better.

JC: Yes.

JS: We're going to start our conversation today by talking about one of the quilts here in your studio. Do you have one that you would like to talk about in particular?

JC: Well, yes, I think the blue-and-white one.

JS: Okay.

JC: It represents a lot of things that I'm all about. For one, it's nice to sleep under; it's a blanket. For another, it's a classic pattern. I get all of my ideas from quilts. I get really edgy or not edgy--nervous when I'm not making a quilt. When I'm making a quilt, I don't get nervous at all. I feel like, 'Oh, well, I know how to do this.' It's the one thing I know how to do, is to make a quilt. So when I make something like this quilt over here, I'd ask, 'Should I do this? Should I do that? What do other people think about it?' et cetera. I have these endless insecurities. But making a quilt, like the blue-and-white one, I don't have those kinds of insecurities.

This was made in 2001. It's a six-year-old quilt now. And I made it for my musical about Joe Hedley, Joe the Quilter, from England, who lived 200 years ago. And so I made six quilts to tell the story of his quiltmaking career. And I tell the story of his life and then sing songs that I wrote about him. So this quilt is a classic design. Tree Everlasting, it's called or other things. It's just sawtooth-edged bars that I wanted to know, 'What would it be like if I just used scissors and cut everything freehand?' Because you know a lot of old quilts were made that way. You'll see quilts--you've seen quilts that you wonder, 'What kind of template was she using, anyway?' The template she was using was no template, I think, sometimes. So, 'What would it be like to just cut?' Well, you see the top row there; it's disappointingly easy to do it turns out. You can just--I wanted a wilder effect, so I started out on the top row just cutting triangles. Well, my eye is good enough at this point, I could just cut triangles and they all fit and everything was easy. That's not the effect I wanted so then I started deliberately messing things up and using scraps to sort of get it so that I could finally get wildness like I did eventually. You can see it as the bars go down. Then I evened it all up because I have enough of the quiltmaker in me or the--what do I want to say, the prissiness or something in me from learning from old ladies how to make quilts that I want it to be square and flat.

So I evened it all up, added borders, and then quilted it freehand. And so since I quilted it freehand – let me see, so I quilted in the letters down the white lines there. 'Joe Hedley's first quilt,' it says, 'made by Joe Cunningham.' In the next bar, the next white bar, it says, 'Blue and White 2001,' and then on the bottom it's just a kind of a vine with leaves, with background quilting. In the blue print there, there's fancy designs. It's around the outside border, there's this sort of a sunrise, then a half of a feather wreath, and then a swag with this sort of--so it's this very fancy design. Then down the blue and white bars, the blue bars there, it's a spiral that goes into a fleur delis.

JS: Oh, I see it.

JC: See that?

JS: Yes.

JC: A spiral into a fleur delis. And then here there's the swag. Here's the little bit of feather wreath. This is kind of a sunrise. It's very complex. And I quilted it all freehand. And when I got it done, you couldn't see it at all. It took me months. I mean, it was not months of quilting. As you know, it doesn't take that long. For me, it takes about twelve days, twelve working days, to quilt a quilt, a six-foot-square quilt. But it took me months to get those twelve working days in. So it was months working on it, and then when I get it done, there I am with something that you can't even see the hand quilting in it, which is one of my favorite things, actually. Because a woman gave me a quilt one time. It was a Pennsylvania German quilt--Merry Silber, the great quilt collector. It was a crib quilt, Pennsylvania German. The bars were about three-and-a-half or four inches wide. And I'm trying to remember, were they pink and yellow or red and yellow, that kind of--and it was the "Ely and Walker" print, the tiny little calico print that was in print for 130 years or whatever it was. So it was made sometime near the turn of the century, a little before probably, 1890 or so. It was so boring. It was just you couldn't even--there was nothing. But it was nice and she gave it to me, and so, 'Thank you very much.'

One day in my studio, it was lying in a certain way, and when the sun raked across it, all of a sudden I could see that in this bar were cables, in this bar were feather wreaths, cables, feather wreaths. But you couldn't see; they were invisible. Well, that's somebody that likes to quilt. And I like to quilt. And quilting, hand quilting, the one element of its decline has been that people--how people view it. They view it as this enormous barrier between their finished piece but all the effort goes into the top. This, 'It's surface design. We're artists. We're making this design. We're making this artistic statement.' And once the top is done, the artistic statement is over. They've done it, they've said everything they have to say, but, 'We still have to quilt it.' [spoken disdainfully.] You know what I mean? So they still have to quilt it, so either they will-- what used to happen is they would quilt it perfunctorily. They would quilt it and you could see they didn't enjoy that, did they? [laughs.] They weren't too hot at it and they didn't really like it and they got it over with as soon as possible by keeping the lines far apart and all that, quilting in the ditch, all of that stuff. Which is hard. It's yucky to quilt in the ditch, you know?

JS: I agree.

JC: Who needs that? But they're so ashamed of their quilting. 'Oh, forget it.' Anyway, so, therefore, when machine quilting came along, people were primed for it. The people, the women of this revival were primed for it because quilting had become just a chore. There was no joy in it. There was no artistic value in it. There was no--it's just a functional thing. You have to make it a quilt by sewing the two layers together. And the last thing that people will say many things about hand quilting, but the last thing that they'll say is how great it is and how renewing it is and how rewarding it is. And as you know from being a quilter, when you have made this object and you have quilted it, when you sit down at the frame and it's an ocean of fabric in front of you, it's the most unrealistic thing in the world to think that you're going to quilt that, right?

JS: Yes.

JC: How are you going to do it? You do it a stitch at a time. You can't see it; it's stupid. There's no way you're ever going to get it done, it just looks like. It's so intimidating. And then you start quilting and then it's six hours have gone, and you don't know where they went, except you do. They're all right there. And, furthermore, if you quilt on an old-fashioned frame so that you roll it up as you go, it's really great psychologically because your finished stuff gets rolled up and rolled up and rolled up, until by the time you have it done, when you're--however you do it, but it's going to be twelve or fourteen inches down the middle is all that's left that's visible, you take that last stitch in there and then you unclamp and you unroll, and you cut that sucker out of the frame or unpin it, however you do it, and you get to see what you did for the first time. Whereas--and it's great. It's really, 'Ah!' what a feeling. Hang it up and get a glass of wine, is what you feel like. Whereas, if you quilt in a hoop, you have the whole thing dragging around. The whole thing is looking at you all the time, saying, 'Partly done. Partly done. Partly done.' [laughs.] And there's no big deal when you get it done. It's no different than when you first started, looks-wise. I mean, you got it done and that's good. 'Okay, that's good, you got it done. And you can hang it up now.' But you know what I mean?

You don't get that--because when I finish--I work spontaneously. I don't make drawings and I don't get on the computer, so I work spontaneously. And I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know what it's going to look like until I'm done making the top, and then I go, 'Oh, that's what that idea looked like. Okay.' This time. 'Okay.' So then I put it in the frame and then I quilt it. Lots of times, because it takes me so darned long to get something quilted nowadays, months, I don't remember what it looked like. Not really, you know, because I only saw it for a little while and then I quilted it down, and so it's a moment of glory for me, of existential glory, to pull a quilt out of the frame.

So if you cannot see the quilting, guess what? Who cares? I know it's there. I can find it. If we crawl around on our hands and knees when it's on the floor, or you walk right up to it in a show, and you can see, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.' Because quilting, the other aspect of it to me, is that quilting is so precious. If you're going to do hand quilting, if you go to the show where there's 300 quilts hung up in the big auditorium or convention center, if you are going to hand quilt it, well, by God, those stitches had better be perfect and they better meet at right angles, and by God, they'd better be close and they'd better be--because you're hand quilting it and you've got to put a lot of hand quilting. [sigh.] And it's so precious because it's just not done. And so you have to do all of this stuff. Well, I just hate the idea of making hand quilting so precious. I love to quilt and it's part of my life. I'm a quilter. And so the idea that it's so precious, that engenders, that fosters all kinds of unhelpful thinking, I believe. If it's so precious, then, like I say, 'By God, you better not make any mistakes!'

When I teach hand quilting, I'll get these expert hand quilters in there whose stitches are much finer than mine, often, in my classes. But what they're trying to do is perfect their stitches. And they want to know, 'So, at the corner of the block, what do you do?' You know, 'You've got the seams. What are you going to do about the seams?' 'Well, I avoid them, if I can! If there's any way I can, I avoid them.' 'Well, what do you if you can't avoid them?' 'Well, my stitches get bigger.'

And as you can see, see how it ruins the quilt? See, over there, how it ruins the quilt because my stitches got bigger? You know what I mean?

JS: [laughs.] Yes.

JC: And I think there's a lot of things that foster that kind of thinking. One is the competitions, because judges will actually say that stuff on their forms, that, 'Stitches spread out in the corners.' And you get marked down for that. So in a way, the people are right who say that, who think that, they're right. If they're entering contests, they're going to get marked down if there's the slightest--so I think contests foster a lot of it. But also, it's just the general, overall preciousness of hand quilting. People then feel like it's life and death, it's life and death, it's the furthest thing from an ordinary part of my life. It's this, 'Everything is coming together. A whole tradition is coming down on me right here in my frame or my hoop or however I'm doing it, and everything has got to be perfect!' And so, what if you draw a feather wreath and there's one fewer feather on this wreath than there is on that wreath? 'How can I make these feathers line up?' Well, they can't line up because it's a curve. There's going to be more feathers on the outside than on this. 'What do you mean, they can't line up? They have to line up!' Well, no, they don't. If you line them up, it's not a feather design; it's something else. 'Arrgh, the tension of it all!' And so, I like anything that militates against the tension in quilts and the overall, but specifically, that's why I want to talk about this blue-and-white quilt, is I like the idea – see, this was a conceptual thing. I wondered, 'What would it look like to make a traditional pattern,' because I like to make a lot of traditional patterns freehand. 'What would that look like?' What would it look like to do a two-color quilt without any plan? So, here we go, this is what it looks like. Well, guess what, Janneken, it's not the greatest quilt ever made. It's cool. I like it. I like it a lot.

JS: As do I.

JC: But it's not the greatest quilt that ever walked. I mean, there it is; it's a two-color quilt. Two-color quilts don't set me on fire, in the first place, generally. They've got to be really unusual, like that chicken the other night, which did have a third color but still, oh my goodness. They've got to be really something. And this one, it is what it is. Well, good. I accomplished what I set out to accomplish which was to find out what it would look like. Right? I found out. It looks like that. Well, great. And in my show that I made it for, it has a function and it's very valuable and everything, but if it's not the most successful quilt, if you can't see the quilting, well, they're not all going to be your first quilt, your best, your greatest quilt you ever made. And I believe there's something about this revival that has made many people feel, I don't know, that their reputation is at stake or something. I mean, it seems to me that nineteenth century quiltmakers felt empowered to make quilts their own way. They were doing something so fundamentally different than what we're doing that it's hard to discern and it's hard to define, but they were doing something, I believe, fundamentally different. For instance, there is a great deal of randomness with nineteenth century quilts. The women would be making pieced quilts, they would work along until they ran out of that fabric, and then they would start in with a new fabric. Well, that tells me that they had a wholly different idea of what they were trying to do. Women today, when they're making quilts, if they run out of – well, they wouldn't run out. You plan ahead. You've got your software telling you how much yardage to get, right? But if you were making the blocks and you ran out, then you'd have to do something clever. Then, 'Oh, okay, I'll use another brown and I'll put it in the corners. I'll arrange it symmetrically. Or I'll put those in the middle to do the one composition that everybody knows,' which is like an exploding sun or something from the middle. We have an area of lightness so we'll do something like that with it. In any event, we have to indicate that it looked intentional. We must control every aspect of this process. We have to look like, 'We're artists.' You can't just let things happen, you know what I mean? Where nineteenth century quiltmakers just let things happen, a lot. They cut borders off. The border design is going along until they're done with it and then they cut it off. You reach the end of the border. Well, now you have to resolve the corners, right?

JS: Right.

JC: And all this stuff. You have to control every aspect of it. And nineteenth century quiltmakers, there's many things that they left out, that they left to chance. Lots of the great appliqué quilts, the majority of the great appliqué quilts, their abilities to replicate curves, exact curves, how about the handles of baskets? Something about the handles of baskets, so that if you see a basket quilt from the nineteenth century, every handle will be different. It's because they were doing something fundamentally different. They were putting handles on the baskets, right? Quilters now are making a pattern, and you've got to [grunt.], and so you have the template and every single handle is exactly the same. Stuff like that. That's what I'm--so because otherwise, if you just put handles on the baskets, it would look like, what? Like you didn't control it. And the suggestion then, I believe, maybe I'm reading too much into it, but the suggestion then is that you didn't know how to control it. And there's a lot of angst around your ability to control your process. You want the quilt to lay flat. You want the quilt--and you want the stitches and you want everything symmetrical and you turn the corner evenly and you know what I mean? [laughs.]

JS: Yes. [laughs.]

JC: So I'm always trying to do things that I don't control. I'm trying to lose control. I'm trying to shed control. So when I do lectures, it's the same thing. I want to provoke myself to use whatever happens in the room to make it now, to keep dragging myself into the now, and not into my outline. And when I'm making quilts, I keep trying to drag myself into the now. I don't want to know. In the past, when I've made commissioned works and I would draw them on computer or by hand and make a tissue overlay for the quilting designs and everything, and then I start making the quilt once I get my down payment, and we're doing it and it's all official for the designer or the architect or whatever, and I start work on it, I've already had all the fun. And all that's left to do now is the work. I've done all the creativity. I solved all the problems. And now I just have to do the work. And there's a certain journeyman's joy in doing something that you know how to do. It's a good thing, just to do a job that you've worked a long time at and you can do it. And there's a certain amount of that. But I don't have to do that anymore, really. That's not what I'm doing. That's not what I want to do. So I keep trying to come up with ideas. 'Well, what would it look like if?' And so, then, my quilts are an answer to that, 'It would look like,' they end up saying, 'like this.' That's the message of my quilts, 'Like this.'

JS: There it is. Yes. That's great. So how did you begin quilting, quiltmaking?

JC: I started making quilts -- [off-the-record discussion about the tape machine.]. I've got a twenty-three minute answer.

JS: That's all right. That's all right. I'm happy not to be talking.

JC: I was back in my home town, Flint, [Michigan.], for the summer, after my one year of college in Colorado. I was going to go back to college that fall. I went home to work on an album, as a guitar player, with a friend of mine, and to write the lyrics on this album. And I was there that summer and a friend of mine said, 'You should.' Oh, no, he told somebody else. He told this woman, folk singer, 'You should hire this guy to play guitar with you on some concerts.' Her name was Gwen Marston. And so Gwen called me up and I went over to her house for rehearsals for some--a series of concerts she was doing. At her house were these boxes full of blankets. They were blankets; they were old. It turned out they were the quilts of Mary Schafer, who just died this winter. She [Gwen.] had gotten a grant to document Mary's collection and to produce a catalogue. She had a bunch of boxes of quilts at her house, about a third of the collection, for the photographer to take pictures of. And I wanted to look at them, so she showed me a bunch of the quilts. Well, something happened to me, you know, I loved them. She made quilts. She had learned to make quilts from a Mennonite quilting group in Oregon, when she had been there on a sabbatical once, and so she was making quilts for her kids and what have you, but just working along as a quiltmaker. But she had discovered Mary Schafer, who was this great quiltmaker in mid-Michigan at the time. She [Mary Schafer.] was born in 1910; this was in 1979, so she was sixty-nine years old. And what I wanted to be was a writer, and I had just finished my one year of college studying English, primarily. And Gwen told me at one point as she was doing the documentation for this, she loved getting all the information together but she was dreading writing the catalogue because she didn't feel like a writer and she didn't want to become one just to do it. Well, I'd been studying English for a year. I could do almost anything, really, with the English language, you know what I mean? [JS laughs.] I was twenty-six. And so I said, 'Well, I can write that for you.' 'Well, you'd have to know something about quilts.'

And I had heard a phrase that I loved in school, which was, 'All the available literature.' I loved that, and I thought to myself, 'Know something about quilts? How about if a read all the available literature? How would that be?' [JS laughs.] Which, at the time, this is 1979, there was about eight or ten books.

JS: You could read all the available literature.

JC: You could read it all. It took me most of the summer to read [Ruth.] Finley and Dr. [William Rush.] Dunton, and Marie Webster, Florence Peto. There was just not that many. These women, all of them became my heroes. And then Barbara Brackman's stuff in Quilter's Newsletter [Magazine.]. So I just read everything that I could read. Then I met Mary, herself, and well, Mary was thrilled. Here was this young man that was interested in quilts. And one night, Gwen came over to my apartment with a little crib quilt, it was a Drunkard's Path, and a big thimble that she had found someplace. And she said, 'If you're going to write persuasively about quilts, you need to know how to quilt. So here's how it's done.' The rocking stitch, she taught me.

'All right.' I was already becoming very interested in her, so, 'Fine. This will make a good impression.' [JS laughs.]

So by the time I finished that quilt, about a week later, my stitches were good enough that I could sit at her frame and quilt on her stuff. And then I wrote the catalogue and we put up this big Mary Schafer quilt show that year, to which an editor came from a now defunct magazine. Her name was Carter Houck from the--it was called Ladies Circle Patchwork Quilts Magazine. And Carter was doing a story on Michigan quilts. She asked me if I would write an article about Mary Schafer. Well, I wanted to be a writer. Getting paid to do an article about Mary Schafer, who I already had all the material, I'd already written about, 'Well, sure, I'll do that.' And we went around and I started seeing what other people were doing in quilts, and it seemed to me that--I was so arrogant, but it seemed to me that people's take on quilts was fundamentally unserious. There was something--see, they're too serious and now I want them to be less serious. I'm serious. This is my life. [JS laughs.] And people would call themselves traditional, meaning what they do is make all symmetrical. 'I use time-honored blocks and I use easily-blended colors and I arrange them symmetrically with a border.' That's what they meant by traditional, when the traditional will put hair on your toenails. Traditional is wild. It's this realm of wildness, if you really look at what's in the tradition. And it always seemed insulting to me. Well, anyway, and I thought, 'Well, I can do better than that. Come on.' And so I wanted to make a quilt. So then we worked together on a quilt and sold it for like fifteen hundred dollars, the first quilt that we ever made together.

JS: Wow!

JC: Then one night, on the way to a gig I was playing, Gwen was going with me to Ann Arbor, and I said, 'I know what to do.' I got this thunderbolt of inspiration. I realized many years later that it was, I think, partly inspired by reading the story of Joe Hedley, Joe the Quilter from England, a man who was a professional quiltmaker. But anyway, I said, 'Let's go pro. Let's get some business cards printed up that say, 'Professional Quiltmakers.' And when we meet people, let's tell them we're professional quiltmakers.' And, you know, what are they going to say? Like, 'Where'd you go to school? Where's your license?' or something? They can't prove that you're not a professional quiltmaker. And then people started hiring us. The Antique Club there in town heard there was these professional quiltmakers and we would come and give a talk, so we'll get paid fifty bucks to talk about the history of quilts, which that's all I was talking about anyway. [laughs.] And we were also performers, and so getting up and doing a lecture, well this is a piece of cake. It's easy. Whereas, at the time, this is late 1979, early '80, when we're getting started, '80, '81, most of the people who were doing quilt lectures were not performers. They were women who had become very good at quilts. And it's two different things. And so many of the great, the early great quilt authorities that I saw were reading their lectures from an outline, and they were not that comfortable doing it. And I was twenty-six, twenty-seven. I was this very tall guy, and it was very easy to stand up. It was very easy to get a lot of attention. Plus we worked like crazy. Gwen's kids were in college then, and so we had no children to contend with, so we could just spend all day making quilts. Lots of times we had to play gigs at night, but we just quilted all day. And so we could produce a lot of quilts, quilt one at least every month and sometimes more than that. And so we had a lot of hand quilting done in a hurry and it was very impressive. And then we started writing. We got a book contract for Dover right away, and then AQS [American Quilters Society.], and we wrote a bunch of books together, and then eventually got a column for Ladies Circle Patchwork Quilts, and wrote for them, how to make quilts. So we eventually built a house on an island in northern Lake Michigan, and had the upper part of it was a quilt studio, and we moved up there and started the Beaver Island Quilt Retreat, which still goes on, although not on the island. It's someplace else now. And made quilts and traveled around the country and wrote books and made videos and all that sort of stuff, all through the eighties.

And then we finally split up and I moved to New York City at the end of '91, early 1992. And I went back to music for while and was music director for a theater company, and then got a radio show in Vermont, a crazy series of things, and I worked for the theater company up there. And then eventually, I was hired by Julie Silber, who was then the curator of the Esprit Quilting Company quilt collection, to come out here because she was starting her exhibition business, The Quilt Complex, and needed a writer, quilt writer who knew Amish quilts to write all of her materials. So I came out here for a five-month job and then met Carol, and got married and stayed. So I've been here ever since. So that's how I got started. [laughs.]

JS: That's great. Okay, I'm glad you brought in the piece with Julie Silber because that's how I became familiar with you, is I read your essay in the catalogue of the Brown Collection [Amish Quilts 1880-1940 from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2000.]

JC: Oh, yes.

JS: And that was when I first saw your name and I was really struck by that, that essay, because I was starting to study Amish quilts at that point and saw the exhibition. So did you do a variety of things with Julie and The Quilt Complex?

JC: Yes. I mean, when I started, and let me just reiterate here it was 1979.

JS: Yes, much earlier.

JC: And to see Amish quilts--I went to see this show; it was the Holstein Collection and the van der Hoof Collection at the Detroit Institute of Art. Mary and Gwen and I went. So there we are, well Mary goes up to this Sawtooth Center Diamond, and she's got her little cloth tape, you know, and well, she knows not to touch quilts, but she's there like this [indicating.], and so she's measuring, 'Those are inch-and-a-half on a side.' Where I'm there taking notes and the guard comes over and says, 'What are you doing?' 'Making a sketch.' 'No sketching!' 'No sketching?' 'There is no sketching, no photography, no drawings.' So, 'Okay,' so one of us would stay out in the hall and the other one would go in and [measure.], 'It's about six inches,' and then go back out and tell the person, 'It's six inches,' you know? [JS laughs.] So that was the first Amish quilts I saw in real life. But for the majority of Amish quilts that we--Gwen and I went through a phase when we first started, I wanted to be serious. Oh!

JS: Well, of course.

JC: And Amish, of course! And Amish quilts, you can't be any more serious than Amish quilts. So I wanted to make these copies of center diamonds and center squares and stuff. So where could you see them? Well, Julie, I knew a little bit, and she – I had met Julie and she sent me pictures of quilts. There was the "Gallery of Amish Quilts" came out then by Bishop and Safanda, and was it Phyllis Haders had a book on Amish quilts then? [Robert Bishop and Elizabeth Safanda, A Gallery of Amish Quilts: Design Diversity from a Plain People, (New York: Dutton, 1976); Haders, Sunshine and Shadow: the Amish and their Quilts (New York: Universe Books, 1976).]

JS: Uh-huh.

JC: So we copied a bunch. We copied about twenty-five Amish quilts. Well, we're making them out of cotton, but I learned a lot by trying to copy the quilting. And then I met some Amish quilters, and so I was just totally into Amish, Amish, Amish. We'd copy these quilts and meticulously copy the colors. When I came out here and saw the quilts that I had been copying, they were completely different. They were completely different in every particular. The colors were not right; the proportions were off. I had copied them very closely but they were off. And then the quilting designs, which I was so good at copying, were embarrassingly more sophisticated and better done and, oh, it was embarrassing to see how I thought I was making these beautiful things [but.] I was making these pale imitations, these ugly--I mean, they were not ugly, but they were imitations of--

JS: When you saw the--

JC: When I saw the real thing and was able to handle them a lot. And so ever since then, 1990--I saw them when I came out in the eighties, during the glory days of the Amish Quilt Collection there at Esprit. But ever since I moved out here to help with Julie, I'm the one that handles those quilts, so I'm the one that packed them up to send them to Lancaster when he finally sold them back. And so I've lived with these quilts and I've breathed in their dust and I just love these quilts. And if I were to set out to make an Amish quilt today, I think I could do a lot better than the ones that I used to make.

JS: Much more intimately acquainted with them. Those twenty-five or so quilts that you were making, painstakingly studying, what happened to those?

JC: Well, when Gwen and I split up, she got all of the quilts that we had made.

JS: So those weren't ones that you had made to sell or on commission?

JC: A lot of them got sold. Let me see here. This [indicating a photograph.] is not a copy; this is just an Amish style Log Cabin. It got sold. They got sold or, 'I don't know,' is the other answer. I got ten quilts when we split up, and I only have a couple of those left. I've sold them.

JS: Right. What is the name of that book? "Sets and Borders" by Gwen Marston and Joe Cunningham.

JC: Copy?

JS: Yes, it's a pretty good copy.

JC: It's pretty good. It's pretty good until you see the real thing and see how--

JS: Of course.

JC: But then, of course, this photograph doesn't really represent that quilt either. So now we're in this middle ground. There's these two quilts, and so that one's pretty good [indicating.]. This one I was very proud of, trying to make a modern version of an Amish quilt.

JS: What did you like about Amish quilts?

JC: Oh, I mean, it's very clear to me what I liked about them. Like I said, I was afraid of people – and especially, my guitar player friends, when they--and musician friends, when they heard that I was making quilts, I was deathly afraid that they would think that I was making "Sunbonnet Sue" things or little tea cozies and stuff like that. Well, the last thing I was ever going to do was something cute. 'No thank you.' I'm a serious--I'm an intellectual, and I don't make junk like that. Little gifts for the grandkids and stuff like that, you know? Come on [JS laughs.] I make serious things. And there's nothing that could be more serious than a Lancaster County quilt. You know, it's cold. Design-wise, nothing is colder and icy and intellectual and seeming, at the time, to me, that's what they represented. And so that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something that would look intellectually detached and cold and severe, severe, like that, and intellectual and minimal. And it resembled minimal art. And it's so embarrassing, but that's true. That's true. And I really liked the Lancaster County stuff initially, but then that opened the doorway into the Midwestern stuff. And then, being in the--when the [David.] Pottinger Collection book came out and seeing all those, well, it was a revelation. And then when I got to actually see Midwestern Amish quilts, then I started having this whole series of revelations. And especially the Arthur Illinois quilts.

JS: Oh, I'm with you.

JC: You know what I'm talking about?

JS: Yes, exactly.

JC: Those, that's it for me. And then when I saw, 'Oh, you can be free. You can just be free.' Oh! And so there was those, and it took me a long time--here's a copy of an Iowa Amish quilt. I've never seen the original; just a picture of it. There was a time--oh, I lost my train of thought because I saw this picture. I was trying to show you here, see, this is--in here, this is the last book that we did together [indicating.], and you can always tell, her quilts are playful and fun; my quilts look ice cold. [both laugh.] This is what appealed to me. I wanted to copy a very difficult quilt of the past. Oh, there's this gallery section in here. Okay, here's what we're talking about. See? We'll take the fundamental ideas of an Amish quilt and then we'll alter it in a more intellectual way. Where she's going much more free stuff. We did these together, but this is me [indicating.]. [JS laughs.] So it took me a long time to get over that, but gradually, that's my train of thought. We did a book on appliqué quilts, but that was never my favorite thing. It really wasn't. Appliqués meant flowers and all of that. Well, by golly, by studying these old quilts and then copying them, then I started to feel--I started to get an appreciation for all these different kinds of beauty and these different kinds of aesthetic realms that quilts represent. Any questions?

JS: Any questions? What, I get to ask questions? [laughs.] So how has--how did you make that transition from the very serious quilting?

JC: Once you see--what happened to me was I met Mary Schafer early on. Mary, one of the world's great quiltmakers, where did her aesthetic come from? Well, I could show you where it came from. Kit quilts. Her whole idea of how to make a quilt came from kit quilts. She studied history extensively but what she copied was the symmetrical, was the engineered borders, was everything about kit quilts, the way they are engineered and designed, she learned to imitate, down to the way she marked quilts was with a brown paper sack. She would sketch the design and then perfect it on a brown paper sack and then poke holes with a knitting needle through, and then lay that on and put pencil marks so that she had a follow-the-dot pattern because that was the first quilts that she made, were kit quilts, and they had follow-the-dot patterns. Her whole aesthetic came from that. So I thought--one of my first original ideas that I took over to Mary's, this quilt top, I said, 'Now I want to quilt it like this. And then on the border, here's what I'm thinking. Here's what I'm thinking. Just bear with me. I want to put the binding on and then just inside the binding, I want to do this little piping, just like a little, oh, a little eighth of an inch edge of maybe yellow up against that red binding.' And she said, 'Well, it's not traditional, you know.' [JS laughs.] Oh, yes, I guess it's not traditional so I guess I can't do it. She was so serious about the tradition and there was something about that that appealed to me. And so, 'Okay, I won't do it then. Fine.' It wasn't that I kept myself from doing anything original, but, I don't know, but anyhow, so then a couple of years later, Merry Silber showed me a quilt dated 1863, that had a little piping around that border – that binding. A little piping around the binding! Well, what would you know about that! And I'll never forget that moment when I saw that quilt and I thought, 'Now wait a minute. What is Mary [Schafer.] talking about that's traditional and what's not?' and all of that. And then I really started looking at the tradition. And when you, like I say, when you look at old quilts, people think of old quilts as like this sort of mottled brown sort of things or something. But when you look at what's there, it's so wild and glorious. And it was from really starting to collect and to study old quilts that then the ones that appealed to me were the ones – then – okay, what happened was my idea of intellectual seriousness flipped. And I started thinking more like John Cage. You can't get any more intellectually serious than that, but also playful. I started thinking of a whole different thing. I started seeing the other quilts. And you can find whatever you want. You can go to Kansas, mid-twentieth century, and get Charlotte Jane Whitehill and that whole crew, Rose Kretsinger and all of them. Well, you could get lost in that and do that for the rest of your life. But what appealed to me, as a musician and as a person, was not knowing what was going to happen next. And once I realized I could find that in quilts, that's what I wanted. That's what I wanted to seek and that's what I wanted to do.

So that's what happened, was at first I thought quilts were valuable insofar as they resembled art. I thought my job was to make art--was to make the quilts – was to make quilts legitimate by making them artistic. At a certain point, my thinking changed because of what I actually saw in the tradition. When I actually realized that, 'Oh, guess what? Guess what, Dude?' Women thought of large-scale, abstract compositions, with a great deal of randomness. In the mid-1800s, you can find utility quilts where she didn't know what it was going to look like; she was just sewing pieces together, and cutting them freehand, for that matter. Fifty years and it's a good thing I have a woman and a child in the room with me or my language would go terrible--fifty years before the painters discovered this, that you could make a large-scale, abstract painting and not know what it was going to look like ahead of time, you could just express yourself with the paint, women already were just expressing themselves with fabric, and they had already discovered this and they were already doing it. So now, then, eventually what happened was I realized that this was pissing me off that quilts still--look at the Gees Bend quilts; it's just the latest thing to happen. I love the Gees Bend quilts, but the reason that they got institutional credibility was because they resemble art. And so everybody--it's so good, it's like art. It's so good. It's a model of art. It's so condescending, number one. It's condescending to think because the whole message here is that these uneducated women, these foolish, frivolous women, stumbled into this--they actually--it turns out they somehow accidentally made these things that we, sophisticates, can appreciate them for how artistic they really are. It makes me want to punch somebody. It makes me so mad that--and so, eventually, I got the feeling that quilts didn't need art. Quilts exist in an aesthetic realm of their own. There is no art in a Nine Patch, a red-and-white Nine Patch. It's a community pattern. We all make red-and-white Nine Patches at some point in our career, or we don't have to, but we used to. All women used to make a red-and-white Nine Patch at some point, a green-and-white Nine Patch, make a two-color Nine Patch. That's a community pattern. We're not expressing our individuality with it. We're not expressing an artistic concept that we invented. We're using all community materials. And yet, and yet, you can look at a red-and-white Nine Patch and it can be so sublime in its proportions and in its composition that you just float away from it, it's so beautiful. And is it art? To me, it's doing something all different than art is supposed to do. But is it an object with some form of aesthetic power? Yes. So I started to have the idea that quilts don't need to be made into art. And then I--but then, I see it's just the opposite. [sigh.] [JS laughs.] It's just the opposite, is what's happening now. Now, everybody thinks that in order to make quilts legitimate, to make them legitimate, we have to make them more resemble art. The more a quilt resembles a quilt, the less intellectually serious you must be. The more a quilt resembles art, the more intellectually serious you must be. It's that way in the quilt world today. You know what I mean?

JS: Yes.

JC: So if you make a quilt, just don't do it! Be creative! Express yourself! Just don't make a boring Nine Patch; just don't do it. You're told, 'Don't do it.' Because that's just what everybody does. You don't want to just do – we're Americans, for God's sake. We have to go our own way. We have to be mavericks.
[JS laughs.] We have to be creative. We have to be artists. And that--so, for instance, Joan Schultz is an artist.

JS: Yes.

JC: She's an artist. And she's primarily an artist, and she's working in the quilt medium. She's using quilts as a medium.

JS: Right.

JC: And that, I have like absolutely no problem with that. That's what people who want to be artists, who make quilts--want to make quilts, that's totally fine. I'm not against that at all. But what I'm against is the general feeling in the atmosphere that I just described, that quilts that are made as art are more valuable, are more serious. This is life and death to me. I'm trying to play as if my life depended on it. I'm serious, but I'm trying to play and have fun. And I just keep coming back to all these ideas come right straight out of the tradition. You can find whatever you want in the tradition, but the more you know about the rest of the world, the deeper you can see into what's already there in quilts. And it doesn't bother me at all that people are using quilts as an artistic medium, but what bothers me is that--the denigration of the tradition, that it's not a worthy pursuit. I want to make it into a worthy pursuit, to make traditional quilts.

JS: All right.

JC: Of course, I haven't thought about this before.

JS: Not at all. [laughs.] So you're currently doing what?

JC: Right. I'm currently completely abandoning all those things I just said. [laughs.] No, my last hand quilted quilt was eucalyptus leaves and I don't have it here. It's called "The Way Home." It's about where I live in the Presidio. And I feel like I finally have. I don't have to do things that are using a quilt format any longer. I feel like now I can make quilts--at this point in my life, I feel pretty free to make whatever I want and to do whatever I want. And so, like this one here [indicating.], it's called "My Own Fault," and it's about living in San Francisco. And when I'm done quilting it, it'll be a quilt big enough to sleep under. That's all I really know about it. But at this point, it feels to me like not doing community patterns. That's what I feel like not doing. I feel like I just want to make my own stuff for awhile and see where it goes. So that's what I'm doing.

JS: Well, I think we are running to the end of our time together today.

JC: All right.

JS: I really look forward to continuing our conversation in the future.

JC: Yes, I'm all for it.

JS: Thank you so much. It's now 2:49 [p.m.] on August 18 [, 2007.], and this is Janneken Smucker signing off with Joe Cunningham for Quilters' S.O.S. [-Save Our Stories.] Thank you so much, Joe.

JC: You're welcome.

Interview Keyword

male quiltmakers
Amish quilts
Quilt Purpose - Art or personal expression



“Joe Cunningham,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 22, 2024,