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July 30, 2012

A journey from rock 'n' roll to rocking stitch

SHELBURNE, Vt. — Joe Cunningham has rocked quilts since 1979, and he is among the men featured in “Man-Made Quilts: Civil War to the Present” at the Shelburne Museum.

He was a 26-year-old guitar player when he opened a friend’s box of quilts and was stunned by their beauty. The friend, who hired him for gigs, was a part-time quilter and had received a big grant to document another woman’s quilt collection. The quilts were in the process of being photographed for a book.

“I flipped my wig,” said Cunningham, who lives in San Francisco. “It was many years before I understood what it was. All I ever cared about was going to museums, seeing arts and books. I would skip school to go to the art museums. It was art, art, art. I liked to study and read about it. I never thought about making it myself. I never thought about being an artist.”

In his family, quilts were made by women relatives.

“Art was intimidating. Quilts were unintimidating. Anyone could make a quilt,” he said.

His musician/quilter friend needed to document the collection and needed someone to write the catalog. Cunningham told her he always wanted to be a writer.

“I was kind of falling for her and wanted to impress her,” Cunningham said. “She said, ‘If you want to write about quilts, you have to learn something about it.’”

He volunteered to read everything on quilting. In 1979, books on quilting filled a 3-foot shelf.

“There were very few books that had any scholarly information about quilts and quilt history. I read all the books I could get my hands on that summer,” he said. “She came over to my apartment. She said, ‘If you’re going to write books about quilts, you have to make them.’”

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