July 30, 2012

A journey from rock 'n' roll to rocking stitch

By ROBIN CAUDELL, Press-Republican

---- — 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.’”

She gave him fabric in a quilting hoop and taught him the rocking stitch, perfect for a rocking guitar player.

“By the time I was done with that sample, I did it well enough to quilt on her stuff. In retrospect, like any man who goes into a woman’s realm, I decided to professionalize it,” Cunningham said. “The first quilt, we sold for $1,500. I said, ‘We could get rich off these things if we make one every month and sell it.’”

He had business cards made. His read: “Joe Cunningham, professional quilter.”

“No one can prove that you’re not a professional quilt maker. It was very easy to go and do talks. It was years before we sold another quilt,” he said.

He and his then-girlfriend built a house and established the Beaver Island Quilt Retreat in Michigan.

“People came from all over the world to quilt with us. We wrote books and videos and traveled around the country one week a month doing lectures and classes. We split up. I went back to music and kept making quilts,” Cunningham said.

He relocated from Michigan to New York City to Vermont, where he lived for several years.

His “The Rule of Three,” a vivid red juxtaposed with gray-and-white stripes, is on exhibit at the Shelburne Museum.

About it, he writes:

“This quilt is about memories and how they are burned into our minds. It is one of a series of quilts I have made addressing the irregular border between conscious and unconscious. The quilting design is ginkgo leaves, which strengthen memories. The quilt employs ideas I took from Amish quilts, such as large pieces of fabric and spare design, which I have adapted to suit my own ends.”

The red fabric was a large scrap from another quilt. The gray-and-white stripes were leftover from another piece of fabric, which he cut and stitched back together. The foreground of the quilt has curlicues made of bias tape.

“I use a lot of bias tape. People send it to me from all over the world. People give it to me when I go out on lectures,” Cunningham said.

He arrived in San Francisco at the request of a friend, a quilt curator for the Esprit Clothing Company.

“They had a quilt collection. It was partly a result of being so phenomenally successful in the ‘80s. They had money to burn. The company started to break up in the ‘90s. My friend Julie realized she was going to have to start her own company,” he said. “She hired me in 1993 to come out here and write all the materials for her new quilt business. I had written books, and she needed someone familiar with Amish quilts, one of my areas of expertise. There were not so many Amish quilt writers. She hired me for a five-month job.” 

Cunningham met someone, fell in love, married, started a family and never left San Francisco, where he has a studio outside of his home.

His signature quilts are held in the permanent and private collections. He has written 11 books on quilts, including “Men and the Art of Quiltmaking,” which was published two years ago. “Biased and Edgy” is the name of his national column for The Quilt Life.

Though he picked up a needle and thimble, as it were, he also still picks up his guitar for infrequent gigs and for his musical quilt show, “Joe the Quilter.”

“It is based on a historical character from England, ‘Joe the Quilter.’ I tell the story of Joe Hedley. He makes whole-cloth quilts. They have one at the Bowes Museum (Barnard Castle, County Durham, United Kingdom). He was a quilter for hire. It inspired me to become professional,” Cunningham said.

He selected for his website to sow confusion for people searching for Joe the Quilter of Warden, England (1750-1830).

“I thought people would go to the website looking for this other guy and find me instead,” Cunningham said. “It turns out,

it has become my identity.”

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