Joe Cunningham

I asked one of my favorite quilters and good friends, Joe Cunningham, to write a note that I could post for you to read. I wanted it to be a little like last months where I followed an idea through a timeline in this case its his career to date.

Here is what he wrote for me [and actually for you]:

I started making quilts in the summer of 1979. So by 1989 I felt like a veteran of the quilt wars. I mean, I had focused all my energy on understanding quilt history, on quiltmaking technique and the aesthetics of old and new quilts, studying the idea of what quilters think they are doing when they make a quilt. If what you think you are doing is making a symmetrical design, then that is what you will do. If what you think you are doing is making a 3-dimensional embodiment of an idea about the universe, then that is what you will do.

From years of copying Old Order Amish quilts and thinking about them, I had acquired the habit of using large pieces of solid-color fabric as a field for quilting. Also, I had become weary of the idea that many quilters seemed to hold, that it was a stash of beautiful fabric that would help them make a beautiful quilt. For this quilt I decided to use all my least favorite fabrics in my collection. That way, I could show that it is not the beautiful fabric that makes a the quilt, it is the quiltmaker who makes the quilt.

At this time I had just read “Rachel and Her Children” by Jonathan Kozol, an astounding book about homelessness in America. So I decided to make a quilt I would call “Blocks”, with a pattern that would suggest the streets and the enormous barriers to the people who live on them. No matter which way you turn you will run into this big red block. For me the quilt worked on several levels, including an expression of the blocks in my own life.

Joe Cunningham Quilt

84 x 84
Machine pieced and hand quilted cottons.
Private collection

After making a commissioned Amish style wool quilt, I found myself with all a bunch of leftover wool, so I made a couple of Amish style things for fun. Then I came up with this crazy idea to make a quilt that would look like I had cut it up and forgot how to put it back together. When I was working on this quilt I received word that my old friend Joe Frank had died.”

Joe, an existentialist professor of literature who specialized in the plays of George Bernard Shaw, could never understand what I saw in quilts. “You’re a smart guy”, he told me, more than once. “What are you doing in this blanket thing? You could do whatever you want. Why waste your time messing around with this?”

“Forget it”, I told him. “I can’t explain it in any way that would make sense. All I know is that for me it is too satisfying to quit.”

Joe was not interested in my non-explanations. He needed rational answers to all the questions of life. Then one evening I was at his house for a dinner party, a great big table full of fascinating people, great food and plenty to drink.

Joe was the star raconteur, so it was noticeable when he fell silent for a moment late in the evening. Suddenly, he snapped up and shouted, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”

Everyone stopped talking for a moment.

“I figured out what a quilt is…it is the perfect existential object!”

None of us knew what he was talking about. So he continued.

“A quilt soothes the pain of existence three ways. First, making a quilt provides an amusing way to pass the time. Second, when it is done a quilt beautifies the world. And third, it can wrap around you and protect you from the coldness of the universe!”

The Perfect Existential Object. Naturally, I had to use Joe Frank’s title for this quilt I was making.

Around this time it occurred to me that many of the old quilts I had studied were quilted without the benefit of markings. This was important to me, because I could not make these freely constructed, improvisatory quilt tops and then cover them with the carefully engineered quilting designs for which I had become known.

Now I felt I had to find a new way of quilting, and the concept of quilting old-fashioned designs without marking them on the quilt top fascinated me. I had to try it. I used the Perfect Existential Object to explore the possibilities, with cross hatching, fans, feathers, basket-weave designs, and more. I transitioned from visualizing the finished quilt into just quilting it.

The Perfect Existential Object
Machine pieced, hand quilted 1996
72 x 72
wool fabric, cotton batting
Private collection

Starting around 2000 I began work on a musical quilt show, something with which I could combine my musical life with my quilt life. It tells the mostly true story of Joe the Quilter, born in Northumberland, England in 1750. A few things are known about his life, and I embellished those and added to them to create a complete story I could tell with songs and quilts. “Bird Flees the Thorns” is a mourning quilt Joe makes after his wife dies. My idea for all the quilts in the musical is this: how can I make a wholly original statement using only the aesthetic materials of old quilts? It seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that an irony of our age of quilts is that, if you want to be considered an intellectually serious quiltmaker, you have to stop making quilts and start making art. I wanted to demonstrate that the tradition of quilts is not a jail from which one must escape, but a fertile field that one could explore ever more thoroughly.

For this quilt I used the format, colors and style of early broderie perse quilts to make my own statement. Also, you can see that the quilting designs were all executed freehand, with no markings. It is amusing to me to see this freehand version of the cable I first used on “Blocks,” above. It is not a traditional quilting design, but one I took from a Roman pot. Difficult to draft, it is even more difficult to quilt freehand.

Bird Flees the Thorns
Machine pieced, hand appliqued and quilted 2002
74 x 74
Cotton fabrics and batting

I made six quilts like “Bird Flees the Thorns”, quilts that I thought of as neo-classical. After that, I wanted to anything but another one. I wanted to see what it might look like if I made whatever I wanted, if I made a quilt based not on the tradition, not on an imitation of art, not something ironic and obscurely humorous for my quilt historian friends to ‘get’, but something sincere. Toward that end I decided to use the eucalyptus leaves in the forest around my house as patterns. Every day on my way to the studio I would pick up another handful of leaves to use as patterns for an applique quilt. When I had covered the entire surface of the honey colored batik background fabric, I stopped. After adding the bottom piece of striped brown fabric I though I would be ready to put it in the frame and quilt, but it still seemed to call for more.

One day at a fabric store I saw spools of commercial bias tape which they sold by the yard. On an impulse I picked up a hundred yards of it. Back at my studio I started ‘scribbling’ with it, just letting the tape wander where it wanted to go as I appliqued it down with my machine using monofilament thread. I had never felt happier working on a quilt. Sewing bias like this gave me the freedom to make the childlike, spontaneous lines I had always been afraid to make before. With this quilt I knew I had found a way of working that was all my own.

The Way Home
73 x 73
Hand and machine appliqued, hand quilted.

In 2008 I received a grant to spend a week in Gees Bend, Alabama, quilting with my friends there. As an isolated rural community, it has very little in the way or work or educational opportunities, so few young people stay around. The quilters there, however, are connected to the tradition in a most direct way, having learned to make quilts from their elders. So I could sit and quilt with them and feel like I was working with the ones who had the most direct line back to my ancestors in the quilt world. It was a fantastic opportunity and one I would like to repeat soon.

When I returned I went to work immediately on a new bias tape quilt, just sewing the lines onto a sort of mud colored fabric I had bought cheap because it was light damaged. My idea was to just sew the bias tape in a rough curve and to run off the edge when I got to the end. Only after I finished the quilt top and hung it upon my studio wall did I realize I had duplicated the bend in the Alabama river I had visited earlier. When I decided to machine quilt it on a long arm, I decided to use the freehand fans that I had quilted with my Gees Bend friend Lucy Mingo. Last year the quilt was purchased by the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Bend in the River
74 x 74
Machine appliqued and quilted cottons
Collection of the de Young Museum

Be sure to check out Joe’s website to see more of his work.


LUKE Haynes is a trained Architect using his skills mostly for good. His work can be seen at his site and the associated blog. He is a full time Quilter and sometimes blogger, whose work is showing across the country and soon the world. You can find him here at Quilty Pleasures on the first Sunday of each month.

Rosey Grier's Needlepoint For Men | Mr X Stitch


LUKE Haynes is a trained Architect using his skills mostly for good. His work can be seen at his site and the associated blog. He is a full time Quilter and sometimes blogger, whose work is showing across the country and soon the world.

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